Battle of Stalingrad
The horrors of war were redefined at the Battle of Stalingrad. Between August 1942 and February 1943, the forces of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union clashed in one of the most decisive battles of the Second World War. For both sides, it was a relentless struggle for survival. By its end, there were nearly two million military and civilian casualties combined. The losses were enormous and the city of Stalingrad (now Volgograd) in southwest Russia was decimated, but for the soldiers of the Red Army, there was no turning back. The defenders of Stalingrad did not break and the Soviets achieved a victory that turned the tide of World War II in favor of the Allies.
In June 1941, Adolf Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, a massive surprise invasion of the Soviet Union. The might of the Wehrmacht pushed the U.S.S.R. to its limits and by the summer of 1942, the German Sixth Army under General Friedrich Paulus had forced its way to the banks of the Volga River, near Russia’s industrial heartland. While in retreat, the Red Army poisoned wells and poured petrol oil on supplies of grain. They would not allow anything to come easily to the invading Germans.
German troops at the Soviet state border marker on June 22, 1941 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
From a strategic standpoint, the conquest of Stalingrad would allow the Germans to sever the Volga and launch further assaults in the Caucasus. To Hitler, the city held an even deeper symbolic importance. Bearing the name of the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, the Führer was unwavering in his desire to capture Stalingrad. The Soviet dictator was just as determined to keep the city carrying his name out of German hands. What followed was a battle of unimaginable cruelty, transcending all bounds of human behavior.
On August 23, 1942, German Heinkel bombers dropped thousands of tons of explosives on Stalingrad, turning the city into an inferno. It is estimated that some 40,000 people died in the first week of the bombardment. On September 3, the German Sixth Army reached the outskirts of Stalingrad and in subsequent days, fought their way into the city against fierce Soviet resistance. Hitler had high hopes for a swift victory. His forces owned the skies and possessed powerful tanks, artillery, mortars, and other heavy weapons. Despite this fury of firepower, the Russians refused to back down.
Smoke over the center of Stalingrad after an aerial bombardment by the German Luftwaffe on the central station. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Stalingrad featured some of the most brutal urban street fighting in military history. Both sides suffered tremendous losses, slugging it out in the blasted ruins of houses and factories. By late September, the Germans had advanced to the Univermag department store in the center of town, but they were unable to dislodge the Russians from their sprawling industrial quarters along the Volga.
General Vasily Chuikov was the Soviet army commander in the city. He ordered his men to dig trenches as close to the enemy as possible, keeping the Germans under constant stress. Chuikov also created “breakwaters.” These were buildings among the smoldering ruins of Stalingrad that were occupied by small detachments of Soviet troops. The occupants held them like fortresses to disrupt the progress of advancing German units. For both sides, the battle descended into a grinding struggle to survive. German soldiers called it Rattenkrieg (Rat War).
Soviet soldiers moving through trenches in the ruins of Stalingrad. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Anatoly Chechov served as a Russian sniper and was interviewed during the battle. He expressed his despair the first time that he took another life. Chechov said, “I felt terrible. I had killed a human being. But then I thought of our people – and I started to mercilessly fire on them. I’ve become a barbaric person, I kill them. I hate them.” At the time of his interview, Chechov had already killed 40 Germans. His fellow Red Army Sniper, Vasily Zaytsev is reported to have put an end to some 242 enemy soldiers at Stalingrad. Captain Nikolay Aksyonov expressed that one could feel “how every soldier and every commander was itching to kill as many Germans as possible.” The soldiers of the Red Army had witnessed tremendous pain and destruction inflicted upon their countrymen and they intended to make the Germans pay for it.
Helmut Walz was one of the Germans who took part in the struggle at Stalingrad. He described the terrors that he faced during relentless house-to-house fighting. In one particular assault on a Russian-held building, Walz came face to face with an enemy soldier. He raised his weapon to shoot, but then, in his words, “I saw little stars in front of my eyes. I looked to my right, and I ran my left hand over my face and a jet of blood comes out and my teeth flew out of my mouth.” Walz thought it was all over for him, expecting the Russian soldier to finish him off, but he was saved when a comrade came to his defense. Walz recounted that his friend “crushed the head of the Russian who had shot me. He crushed his head despite the steel helmet he was wearing, right into the middle of his face. That made such a cracking noise, I can still hear it today.” That wasn’t the end of it. As this savior bandaged Walz’s wounds, another enemy soldier came behind him. Walz tried to warn his friend, but shots rang out and his comrade was hit in the head. It was a messy sight as the man’s head was split open by the shot. Walz recalled, “That’s the first time I saw a brain.” Stalingrad was pure hell.
German soldiers of the 24th Panzer Division fighting for the southern station of Stalingrad. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
In mid-November, the grinding struggle had taken a toll on the Germans. With the advance stalled and munitions running short, Marshal Georgi K. Zhukov launched a Soviet counteroffensive to encircle the enemy. Hitler refused to entertain the idea of a tactical withdrawal, ordering his forces to hold their ground at all costs. Air Marshal Hermann Göring made assurances to resupply the German Sixth Army from the air, but he proved unable to effectively deliver on his promises. Desperation intensified as winter set in. German Field Marshal Erich von Manstein mounted a rescue mission, but it was stopped short of its goal. On January 24, 1943, with his men trapped, freezing, and starving, Sixth Army commander Friedrich Paulus urgently requested permission from Hitler to surrender. The Führer refused: “The 6th Army will hold its positions to the last man and the last round.” Despite Hitler’s position on the matter, Paulus surrendered his shattered army days later. Of the 91,000 remaining Germans that went into Soviet captivity, fewer than 6,000 are believed to have returned home.
Axis casualties at Stalingrad included Germans, Romanians, Italians, and Hungarians. It is estimated that these forces suffered some 800,000 dead, wounded, missing, or captured during the campaign.
A Red Army soldier with a captured German soldier. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Initially pushed to the brink of defeat, the Soviets had prevailed at the Battle of Stalingrad. Official Russian military historians estimate that over one million Red Army soldiers were killed, wounded, missing, or captured in defense of Stalingrad. Following the battle, the Soviets embarked on a westward drive towards Germany, largely remaining on the offensive for the remainder of the war. In 1945, Stalingrad was officially proclaimed a Hero City of the Soviet Union for its defense of the motherland.
Encyclopædia Britannica: Battle of Stalingrad.
History.com: Battle of Stalingrad.
History.com: Von Paulus to Hitler: Let us Surrender!
The National Interest: Why Stalingrad was the Bloodiest Battle of World War II (and perhaps of All Time)
WW2history.com: Helmut Walz’s words about the Battle of Stalingrad.