It was the summer 1942, and Case Blue was coming into effect. It was to be the decisive German offensive that sealed the defeat and collapse of the Soviet Union. Army Group South would descend the Donets Corridor towards the city of Stalingrad on the Volga River to protect the northern flank of the forces pushing towards the Caucasus oil fields. Adolf Hitler had, however, made the decision that instead of bypassing the city, Stalingrad itself was an objective and was to be taken by storm. Capturing Stalingrad would, in fact, not only destroy a major industrial hub, but also block Soviet shipping coming up the Volga.
On August 23, 1942, the forces of the German 6th Army under General Friedrich Paulus entered the city.
The Soviet reinforcements being rushed there were greeted from afar by explosions and pillars of smoke. Even the darkest night was illuminated by the incendiary bombs that turned the once beautiful city into an inferno of burning ruins. Still, day and night the ferries poured men, tanks and supplies over the Volga to keep the city in Soviet hands. For the men on those ferry boats, there was no going back. Neither the dive-bombing German Stukas above them nor the merciless and ever watchful eyes of Stalin’s commissars of the NKVD gave them any choice. They would push the invaders back or they would die trying.
Stavka – the Red Army Command – had tasked its 62nd Army under Lieutenant General Vasily Chuikov with holding on to the city that Stalin considered the symbolic birthplace of the Bolshevik Revolution, whatever the cost. Stalin’s orders were law: “We shall never surrender the city of our birth. Let us barricade every street. Let us transform every district, every block, every building into an impregnable fortress.”
Ironically, they were helped by the German Luftwaffe with that task, as its massive carpet bombing campaign had turned the city into a maze of ruins and rubble. Every cellar could be turned into a bunker, every collapsed factory into a possible strong point, and Chuikov’s tactic was ‘hugging the enemy’. They would be so close to the Germans that they could not be targeted by artillery. In the wreckage, men caked in dirt, dust and blood ran into each other, fighting mercilessly with guns, hand-grenades and bayonets. Small platoons of Soviet sub-machine gunners swarmed through the ruins trying to outflank their enemy, while German storm troops rushed from cover to cover under the stutter of machine guns.
The war of rats
Chuikov called it the ‘Stalingrad Academy of Street Fighting’. Soldiers lost track of time and space in the pulverised wasteland, which was once a thriving city where hundreds of thousands of people lived in multi-storey buildings. Traps and ambushes were omnipresent. The Germans could, for example, hold the first and third floors of a building, while the Soviets still occupied the second. One mistake or one step too far into the open, and that was it. Soviet snipers – marksmen and hunters from The Soviet Union’s eastern regions – lay camouflaged in the rubble, killing Germans with extraordinary precision. Casualty rates among German officers rose to unprecedented levels, as their life expectancy at the front was often just a few hours. It was an extremely draining way of conducting war, both mentally and physically. No sleep was granted, as every night was illuminated by flares and harassing fire. This was not the warfare to which the Germans were accustomed. No open battlefield manoeuvres, no Blitzkrieg-style advances. Forced to keep their heads down, they called it ‘Rattenkrieg’, the war of rats.
For the men fighting in the city, this was not about ideology or war aims, but about simple survival, and for the Soviets, survival meant killing as many Germans as possible. But the German 6th army did not just consist of Germans, but also Austrians, Italians, Hungarians, Romanians, Croats and indeed Russians, known as Hiwis. They were among the most tenacious fighters, knowing that falling into Soviet hands was a sentence worse than death. The Communist regime had barely any pity left for its own men, or the women and children still trapped between the two armies.
The final phase of the battle
During the final phase of the September battle, the Germans made progress. The Party Headquarters of Stalingrad might have fallen on the 26th, but the rest of the city did not. Chuikov’s credo, that ‘every man had to become a stone of the city’, was making a difference. For the Germans, attacking the Red Square, the Red October worker’s settlements or the Barrikady gun factory was like attacking a fortress of steel and concrete. The main railway station changed sides 15 times in just five days.
Hitler was visibly frustrated over the stubborn Soviet resistance and the mounting casualties. General Paulus had promised him many times that the fall of the city was just a few days away. How could the 6th army, one of the largest and strongest, not break the Soviets? The German censors at home tried their best to hide the fact that this was a battle of attrition that the Germans might actually lose. Nervousness swept through the Führer’s headquarters.
Throughout October, the fight for the northern industrial sector and the heights of the Mamayev Kurgan continued, but supplies and reserves were running dangerously low. The field hospitals within Stalingrad and on the banks of the Volga were packed with wounded as far as the eye could see.
Stalin himself met with the Stavka to discuss the coming Soviet counterstroke, codenamed Operation Uranus. While the city’s defenders would continue holding out, the offensive would be directed against the overstretched German lines outside the city, where far away from the street to street fighting, the forces guarding the Steppes and along the bends of the River Don fought in the monotony of trench warfare.
The Romanian 4th Army was there, but captured prisoners had revealed to the Soviets that they had nearly zero anti-tank weapons. So, while the Germans poured more and more men into the city, Stalin was determined to turn it into a trap.
By November, its fate was still uncertain, but the German soldiers began to realise that they would have to stay there through the brutal Russian winter. And after Hitler once again broadcast ‘near victory’ on the radio on the 8th, the temperatures fell dramatically the following day.
On November 19, as Soviet stockpiling came to an end and over a million men had been assembled in the rain and frost, Operation Uranus began. Heavy artillery shells and shrieking Katyusha rockets crashed into the Romanian lines. Successfully fighting off the first waves, they eventually broke as the mass of T34 tanks smashed through their lines unchallenged.
Paulus, putting his trust in the Führer’s calculations, had totally failed to prepare for such a possibility. No mobile tank force was available to prevent the disaster taking place on his flanks. The Axis Forces outside the city were now threatened from three sides. Suddenly the whole German force on the southern Don Front was threatened with being cut off. Pulling back was the only option.
On Sunday, November 22, the news broke in Hitler’s headquarters: “Stalingrad surrounded, Russians approaching, Romanians retreating.”
At first, the encircled German forces perceived the ‘Kessel’, as they called it, simply as temporary. Now forced to hold out until they could be relieved, they reversed the roles. True to the rules of the Stalingrad Academy of Street Fighting, they formed a defensive hedgehog, turning their surroundings into defences. But in December, the Russian winter was tightening its grip around the city, as was the Soviet snare.
While many Germans still clung to the promise: “Hold on, the Führer will get you out”, others began to lose faith. The combat fatigue, the malnutrition and the sleepless nights took a heavy toll on the soldiers. Every tank lost was irreplaceable, shells were getting fewer and fewer, and fighting strength deteriorated rapidly. As did all hope of making it out alive.
The 6th Army could not simply be supplied by an airbridge, as there were neither enough planes nor fuel available. What was supposed to be the saving grace that was ‘Operation Winterstorm’ by Field-Marshal von Manstein was halted 40 miles in front of the Kessel by strong Soviet opposition.
The symphony of Stalingrad spoke of incoming doom. The NKVD played tango music and propaganda from German communists through the loudspeakers as Katyusha rockets screeched overhead. German rations were cut to a third, in the hope that they would hold out until 1943. Cases of self-inflicted wounds and desertions increased. Despite the rumours that the Soviets would kill every prisoner, many just simply had enough.
Rations became so small that soldiers were expected to live and fight off a small slice of black bread a day and whatever they could find for their soup. Draught animals were slaughtered, dogs skinned. Already weakened by starvation, thousands were hit by disease and frostbite. The overcrowded field hospitals were a gruesome sight of death and open wounds. Those too seriously wounded were just left to die. Huddled together in cellars, shivering in tattered grey overcoats, and with swollen frozen limbs, the army was disintegrating day by day. There was not a single healthy man left in the Kessel.
Paulus refused to surrender, even as his army was pushed into the smallest corner of the city. Hitler had by now given up the 6th army, ordering Paulus to hold out like the Spartans at Thermopylae and die for Germany’s future. According to him, the 6th Army had “fulfilled its historical contribution to the greatest passage in German history.” The city was to be its grave.
Soviet General Rokossovsky had the honour of finishing the job. Soviet tanks, unchallenged by useless anti-tank guns without shells, crushed all resistance under their tracks. Many German officers shot themselves, while others made heroic last stands. On January 31, 1943, the Soviet soldiers cleared out the last cellars and dugouts with grenades and flamethrowers in the city centre, before breaking into Paulus’ command post.
Over 90,000 men were taken captive, the remnants of the mighty 6th Army. But these were pitiful remnants of men. Starved, weak and sick, limping and shuffling towards the snow clad steppe. Most of them did not survive the marches to the camps and many were shot along the way. The Soviets proclaimed: “After Stalingrad we shall give no quarter.”
The bloodiest battle of the war
They didn’t. With upwards of 2 million casualties or perhaps more, it was the bloodiest battle of the entire war, and the largest, with over 2 million men involved at the time of the counter offensive.
It wasn’t just a loss for the Axis Powers or for Germany; in many ways it was THE loss. The initiative of the war, after a year of Axis gains, had shifted in the USSR’s favour. Germany had lost an entire army and their European allies had been broken. It is hard to overestimate the significance of the Soviet victory at Stalingrad – one of the major turning points in military history.
Alan Brooke, British Chief of Staff, said this: “I felt Russia could never hold, Caucasus was bound to be penetrated, Abadan (our Achilles heel) would be captured with the consequent collapse of the Middle East, India etc. After Russia’s defeat how were we to handle the German land and air forces liberated? England would be again bombarded, threat of invasion revived… And now! We start 1943 under conditions I would never have dared to hope. Russia has held, Egypt for the present is safe. There is a hope of clearing North Africa of Germans in the near future…”
The entire war had changed for the Allies, for the whole world and for the future of mankind.
If you prefer a visual interpretation of this story, watch our Sabaton History episode ‘Stalingrad – World War Two’.