Stalingrad: the crushing of the Reich

Peter Caddick-Adams explains how the Soviet Union managed to inflict a decisive defeat on Hitler's forces in what would come to be known as the battle of Stalingrad

The red banner of the Soviet Army is hoisted up in a recaptured part of Stalingrad, as the German Sixth Army is beaten, 1943. (Photo by Archive Farms/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the February 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

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From its foundation in the mid‑16th century, the old fortress town at the confluence of the Tsaritsa and Volga rivers has had three identities. Originally called Tsaritsyn and today labelled Volgograd, it was known for a mere 36 years (1925–61) by the name with which it will be eternally associated – Stalingrad.

The very name quickly became shorthand for the Nazi defeat in the east, and even at the time was considered a turning point of the Second World War, by all sides – Soviet and German included.

At the 70th anniversary of Stalingrad, the achievement of the Soviet people remains just as awe-inspiring. In 1941, Germany had nearly conquered European Russia, being checked and rolled back only at the gates of Moscow. In November 1941, Field Marshal Fedor von Bock had visited an artillery command post, from where he could see the winter sun glinting off the Soviet capital’s buildings through his field glasses, while two weeks later his men reached Kuntsevo, a western suburb of Moscow, before being repulsed.

Starting on 6 December and through the winter of 1941/42 the Soviets struck back in a series of counteroffensives, removing the German threat to Moscow, and making it clear that the eastern front was likely to become a long, attritional campaign.

Although the German army no longer had the strength and resources for a renewed offensive in 1942 on the scale of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler was adamant that remaining on the defensive and consolidating his gains was not an option.

While Hitler’s forces had captured vast tracts of land, cities and important industrial resources, the Soviet Union remained unbowed. The führer’s Army General Staff (Oberkommando des Heeres – OKH) therefore searched for an offensive solution that would employ fewer men, enable Germany to destroy most of the remaining Soviet armies, capture the Caucasus oil vital to the war effort of both sides, and so knock the Soviet Union out of the war.

Heading south

Stalin was convinced there would be a renewed thrust towards Moscow, but achieving complete operational surprise, on 28 June 1942 von Bock instead unleashed Fall Blau (Case Blue), the continuation of Operation Barbarossa. His objective was not the Soviet capital, but the south.

Field Marshal von Bock’s command was divided into Army Groups (Heeresgruppen) A and B. The former, under Wilhelm List, was ordered to swing south, cross the Caucasus mountains and reach the strategic resource of the Baku oil fields.

Maximilian von Weichs’ Army Group B was to protect its northern flanks by securing Voronezh (with Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army); the regional capital, Stalingrad, (using Paulus’s 6th Army); and the Don and Volga rivers.

The battered city of Stalingrad undergoes artillery fire during its siege by German forces in 1942 and 1943. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
The battered city of Stalingrad undergoes artillery fire during its siege by German forces in 1942 and 1943. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

To the south, Ewald von Kleist’s 1st Panzer Army surged towards the oil fields, reaching the more westerly wells around Maikop in six weeks, though these were sabotaged as the Wehrmacht arrived.

As in 1941, the Soviet forces, with inferior training and equipment, were outmanoeuvred with a repeat of the Blitzkrieg tactics of the previous year. The German integration of air and ground forces, targeting of Soviet command posts and, above all, their speed, proved decisive.

This was arguably the USSR’s weakest hour, for her generals appeared to have learned little from 1941, and her newly raised legions were barely trained and woefully short of air support, artillery and modern armour.

Hitler’s direction of the new eastern campaign would prove disastrous, however, for he was torn continually between the overriding necessity of capturing the strategic oil resources in the Caucasus and seizing the city that bore the name of his personal adversary. Before succumbing to the lure of Stalingrad, then a city of 400,000, Hitler was on record as declaring: “If I do not get the oil of Maikop and Grozny, then I must end this war.”

Within two months, on 23 August, Paulus’s 6th Army of 22 divisions (two of which were Romanian) had reached the outskirts of Stalingrad. His 200,000 men outnumbered the 54,000 defenders by nearly four to one. Since April, the city – an interwar showcase of communist achievement with many modern factories, apartment blocks, contemporary public buildings and wide boulevards – had been suffering air raids from the Luftwaffe’s Luftflotte (Air Fleet) 4, reducing much of the area into twisted rubble.

Stalingrad map illustration
Map illustration by Martin Sanders.

The battle of Stalingrad underlines the great contrasts between the German and Soviet war machines. The two opposing commanders, 51-year-old Friedrich Paulus of the German 6th Army and Vasily Chuikov, aged 42, commander of the Soviet 62nd Army, could not have been more different.

Paulus was a superbly talented staff officer, an outsider who lacked aristocratic or Prussian blood, came from relatively modest origins, and yet had risen to become General der Panzertruppen and chief staff officer of the 6th Army by the end of 1941.

Paulus was the very antithesis of his superior, the coarse and unkempt Field Marshal von Reichenau, who loathed routine paperwork, preferring to be at the front. Yet when Reichenau died of a heart attack in January 1942, Paulus was considered his natural successor.

Preferring to command from well behind the line, he possessed an unusual fixation for a soldier: he despised dirt – and bathed, and changed uniforms, every day. With an eye for minute detail, and known by his nickname ‘the ditherer’, Paulus had spent most of his professional life on the staff. While a nimble administrator and logistician, he had rarely been called upon to lead.

Weather-beaten

If Paulus was a ditherer, his opponent was the very opposite. Possessed of a volatile temper, and known to have used his walking stick to strike subordinates who had displeased him, the weather-beaten face of Chuikov proclaimed a born fighter of even humbler background.

The 8th of 12 children, Chuikov had risen to become a regimental commander in the Russian Civil War, aged 19, through sheer ability. Surviving Stalin’s purges of the army because of his youth, he had commanded the 4th Army in the Soviet invasion of Poland. He was the military attaché in China when Operation Barbarossa began and was thus untainted by the setbacks of 1941.

Recalled in early 1942, he commanded the 64th Army, delaying the German approach to Stalingrad, before assuming command of the defenders on 12 September, under the watchful eye of the local commissar, Nikita Khrushchev.

Though the original Fall Blau did not require the physical capture of Stalingrad – just domination of the area, which acted as a gateway to the Urals and controlled river traffic along the Volga – Paulus was now ordered to seize the city. Gradually, Kleist’s armoured thrusts towards the more important oil wells lost their momentum, as Hitler diverted some of his panzers back to Stalingrad.

The 6th Army commander reasoned that Stalingrad was too large to encircle, and on 14 September, he launched several ferocious assaults to reduce the city to smaller blocks he could defeat piece-meal. Chuikov had insufficient manpower to counterattack, but determined to defend doggedly, destroying as much of Paulus’s war machine as he could, while his defenders were overwhelmed.

Military history taught that attackers should outnumber their opponents by at least three to one. The same logic demonstrated that determined defenders will inflict a large number of casualties on their enemies; and so it proved.

Shells and snipers

As Paulus tried to capture the industrial areas in the north, ferry crossing points over the Volga, and the high ground of Hill 103 (to the Soviets, Mamayev Kurgan), German unit strengths plummeted. On the first day, six battalion commanders died, and over the ensuing days many irreplaceable young infantry officers were caught by shells or succumbed to snipers.

This was the real tragedy of Stalingrad for Germany: a generation of trained leaders perished in a few months. In October, a panzer officer had already recorded: “Stalingrad is no longer a town… Animals flee this hell; the hardest stones cannot bear it for long; only men endure.”

By early November, Paulus controlled nearly 90 per cent of the city and had destroyed almost three quarters of Chuikov’s army, yet those left alive clung to the west bank of the Volga and refused to submit.

Images of German POWs, Stalingrad, 1943
German POWs, Stalingrad, 1943. Of the almost 100,000 taken prisoner, only 5,000 ever returned to Germany. (Corbis)

Unlike Paulus, Chuikov’s dogged personality certainly inspired his troops: all ranks knew they were to hold their positions or die in the attempt. He had anticipated house-to-house fighting, built strongpoints along the major streets the Germans would have to use and prepositioned his artillery to strike at the Wehrmacht’s likely concentration areas.

While the NKVD were instructed to shoot anyone attempting to withdraw, Chuikov reinforced this ‘last-man-last-bullet’ mentality with his own proclamation: “There is no land past the Volga.”

Yet before Paulus had even arrived, the STAVKA (Soviet High Command) had determined to use Chuikov and his 62nd Army as a ‘tethered goat’, attracting the Germans to their prey, then surrounding them with even larger forces. Unaware of this, and fed by Paulus’s optimism (he was commanding from far outside the city), Hitler announced on 8 November: “I want to take it, and you know, we are being modest, for we have got it!”

However, the führer had lost sight of his strategic objective – oil – in favour of a personal struggle with Stalin through the town that bore the latter’s name. The place had no strategic value in itself, and, in drawing such exaggerated attention to the battle, Hitler was setting himself up for a fall of catastrophic proportions from which his Reich would never recover.

The Soviet counteroffensive, Operation Uranus, began on 19 November, when six armies attacked from the north, targeting the weaker Romanian 3rd Army, securing Paulus’s northern flank. Within hours, Paulus’s front was in tatters as the attack sliced far behind the German lines.

A day later, three more Soviet armies assaulted, this time from the south; again the stiletto of attacking forces drove deep into the German rear. On 23 November, the two Soviet thrusts met at Kalach, west of Stalingrad. In doing so, they sealed Paulus’s 6th Army into a kessel (cauldron-shaped pocket), measuring at its greatest extent 80 miles wide.

At this stage, Paulus should have lifted the siege and made attempts to escape, returning to fight another day. Three personalities then intervened to condemn the 6th Army to a slow, agonising death, and forever shatter the aura of invincibility that had accompanied the Wehrmacht.

First, Paulus dithered on a grand scale: he neither requested to break out, nor sought to impose his own will on the battle, becoming a prisoner of events. Second, from the safety of Berlin, Hermann Göring intervened and promised that his Luftwaffe would supply the besieged army with all the food, fuel and ammunition it required.

However, Göring’s slow Junkers-52s were to provide less than half the minimum of 300 tonnes per day necessary for Paulus’s men. They also took heavy losses themselves, and once Pitomnik and Gumrak airfields had fallen, could do nothing. Göring’s unreal assurances inspired the third individual, Hitler, to insist that the 6th Army stand and fight where it was, rather than impugn his reputation.

When ground relief attempts from Field Marshal von Manstein’s Army Group Don, operating from north of the Crimea, were themselves threatened with another great Soviet encirclement, the Germans belatedly realised that the 6th Army was beyond rescue. Both sides fought their rattenkrieg (rat-war) in Stalingrad’s stinking, germ-ridden cellars; dreadfully emaciated; survivors spoke of cannibalism and desperate fighting between comrades for scraps of food.

Paulus, though, remained well-fed and clean-uniformed, and initially failed to respond to Soviet offers of surrender terms. When he eventually requested permission to yield from Berlin on 22 January 1943, Hitler refused. Instead, on 30 January, he encouraged Paulus to continue fighting with the bribe of promotion to Generalfeldmarschall.

But Paulus had had enough and surrendered the next day, singularly failing to alleviate the plight of his own men in any way throughout the struggle. In sub-zero temperatures, nearly 100,000 men marched into captivity, of whom fewer than 5,000 would emerge from the Gulags a decade later.

The military legacy

Stalingrad set the agenda in terms of terminology and tactics for urban warfare, and the drawn-out battles for Monte Cassino, Caen and Berlin were seen and reported in similar terms to their Soviet predecessor.

Allied (and later NATO) doctrine would emphasise the careful preparation and battle drill required of attackers and defenders, the complex equipment they would need, the high casualties they were likely to sustain and how overwhelming artillery support was highly desirable to crush strongpoints and minimise casualties. Certainly, Bernard Montgomery learned to concentrate hundreds of his guns into AGRAs (Army Groups, Royal Artillery).

As a result of Stalingrad, the Soviets came to rely on hundreds of truck-mounted Katyusha multiple rocket launchers as well as traditional cannon in their great offensives, and called artillery the ‘Red God of War’.

The battle also haunted NATO military planners during the Cold War, when it was assumed that a Warsaw Pact steamroller would head westwards and trigger urban warfare in European cities on a Stalingrad scale.

The lessons of 1942–43 were constantly studied and revised, and much energy devoted to replicating fighting in built-up areas (FIBUA) or military operations in urban terrain (MOUT) in Cold War exercises. Yet both sides feared the impact of mass battle casualties from this kind of encounter, for Stalingrad had cost the Germans over 750,000 men and the Soviets over a million killed, wounded or taken prisoner.

Soviet troops operate a Katyusha rocket launcher during the battle for Berlin
Soviet troops operate a Katyusha rocket launcher during the battle for Berlin, April 1945. In its great post-Stalingrad offensives, the Soviet army increasingly relied on weaponry like this. (Corbis)

The legend of Stalingrad

The battle for Stalingrad has been interpreted in many different ways by writers and film-makers in the 70 years since silence settled over the shattered town. The wartime media made much of the city’s heroic defence and Churchill decided to present Stalin with a specially commissioned, jewelled sword commemorating the battle at the 1943 Tehran conference. The battle made good newspaper copy and was seen, in tandem with El Alamein, as the stemming and turning back of the Nazi tide.

The early writers of Stalingrad were mostly Soviet commanders or sympathisers, who lauded Stalin’s personal leadership and his brilliance in selecting talented subordinates and his direction of the STAVKA. Once Khrushchev (the commissar at Stalingrad) had denounced Stalin’s achievements in 1956, Soviets switched their interpretation to one of triumph of the Soviet people.

Commanders like Chuikov and Zhukov (who planned the counteroffensive) began to receive praise, as did civilians and workers who had contributed to the remarkable victory. Notably, Soviet commentators ignored the supply of war materials to the USSR from Britain and the USA.

As for the Wehrmacht, it was portrayed as inept, corrupt and undistinguished; German soldiers were not interviewed, for the Soviets’ aim was solely to praise the USSR in its Great Patriotic War. Few Germans dared write of the Ostfront in the first decade afterwards, tainted as it was with sickening war crimes against the Soviet people.

Gradually, accounts (such as Guderian’s Panzer Leader of 1952 and Manstein’s Lost Victories of 1955) trickled out, emphasising bitterness at the suffering, or the opportunities that Hitler squandered. Inevitably, East Germans wrote of the corruption of the Nazi regime (see Theodor Plievier’s dark novel, Stalingrad).

On the Soviet side, Vasily Grossman’s fictional Life and Fate, set around events at Stalingrad, was considered so shocking that it was suppressed in 1959 and published only in the 1980s after being smuggled to the west. It was recently serialised on BBC Radio 4.

Following the era of glasnost (openness) associated with Mikhail Gorbachev, objective historians such as Antony Beevor (Stalingrad, 1998) and Christopher Bellamy (Absolute War, 2007) were able to study Soviet archives that had been sealed since 1945, and are again harder to access under the Putin regime.

In recent decades, the estimated figure of 20 million Soviet war dead has been revised upwards, with some historians arguing for a total as high as 27 million. We will never know for sure.

Before Glasnost, the west had known remarkably little of the eastern front, and the Soviet Union’s suffering. One of the few historians active in researching the subject was John Erickson, whose Road to Stalingrad (1975) and Road to Berlin (1983) sold extremely well.

It was Beevor and Bellamy who brought the scale of Barbarossa and Stalingrad to a wider audience, through their mix of private accounts and official papers. Perhaps the west’s ignorance also lay in a Cold War reluctance to accept what Erickson, Beevor and Bellamy have since argued: that the war in Europe was won in the east, and that, though Stalin was in many ways as ruthless and bloodthirsty as Hitler, his nation triumphed.

However, for political reasons, we in the west have never wanted to acknowledge the sacrifices the Soviets made.

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Peter Caddick-Adams is a lecturer at UK Defence Academy in Shrivenham and author of Monte Cassino: Ten Armies in Hell (Preface, 2012).