Communism vs. Fascism…the Ali vs. Frazier heavyweight bout of WWII.
Aside from catastrophes of the First World War such as Verdun and The Somme, few occurrences have come close to equaling the brutality and utter disregard for human life as displayed during the winter of 1942-43 at the city of Stalingrad.What transpired was, in all likelihood, the worst single instance of human slaughter in history. Historians have generally reached a consensus regarding the breakdown of German casualties; figures for the number of Soviet losses remain ambiguous with some sources citing 1-2 million while other more moderate estimates place Soviet losses around 500,000. The uncertain casualty count attests to the sheer magnitude of loss. This gruesome 5-month battle irreversibly altered the direction of the Second World War, though referring to Stalingrad as merely a battle seems wholly inadequate. Personified, it was truly a clash of the titans.
By the summer of 1941, Nazi Germany reigned supreme across all of continental Europe; the blitzkrieg had given Hitler a dangerously arrogant degree of confidence. Naivety from the Wehrmacht’s overpowering victories in Poland and France, however, undermined efforts in the East as plans for the conquest of Russia proved to be horribly unrealistic and turned into a frozen nightmare for Germany’s soldiers.
The invasion of Russia, Operation Barbarossa, began on June 22, 1941, when literally millions of German soldiers, pack animals, armored vehicles, tanks, artillery and aircraft poured into Eastern Poland and Ukraine. Unsuspecting, ill-prepared Soviet border defenses were rapidly overrun. Advancing German units quickly penetrated far into the interior of Russia. Pockets of Soviet troops were captured en masse at places such as Smolensk. Cut off by the blitzkrieg tactics of the German mechanized units and still rebounding from the leadership drain thanks to a recent round of Stalin’s purges, the Soviet military suffered horribly in the opening phases of the invasion. Ironically, these early defeats would ultimately serve the Soviet Union well, as they seemingly verified Hitler’s misconception regarding the invincibility of the Wehrmacht.
After barely failing to capture Moscow during the initial 1941 offensive, Hitler decided to pursue the vast Soviet oil resources in the Caucuses to the South. For this task he chose the venerable battle-hardened VI army; numbering over 400,000 men, it was the crème of the crop of the Wehrmacht and upheld a proud reputation of success, from the pre-war Czechoslovakian occupation to its entry into Paris to its recently concluded invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece. Among the finest, best-equipped units in the Wehrmacht, the VI army was primed for achieving success through rapid, overwhelming maneuvers. Had it been employed in this fashion and allowed to race south towards the oil fields, there is no telling how the rest of the war may have played out. Fortunately for the Soviets, Hitler’s irrational stubbornness quickly shifted the focus from the oil fields to the industrial center of Stalingrad, far north of any oil reserves and far removed from any sense of logical strategy. Apparently having a city named Stalingrad on the map was just too much for Hitler to bear and it had to be destroyed, even if it meant the destruction of his own army in the process.
Urban warfare and fighting house-to-house mitigated nearly every advantage the Wehrmacht possessed as their expertise in mobile warfare had no application within the confinements of Stalingrad. More than eager to utilize the city’s terrain, Soviet troops dug in and prepared for the Germans. This was the ideal focal point for Stalin to frustrate Hitler’s efforts.
Stalin received crucial help from General Vasily Chuikov, a Soviet commander who knew just how to capitalize upon Stalingrad’s terrain. Having arrived at the city with reinforcements rushed from Moscow just in time to stunt the initial German assaults, Chuikov bravely set up his Headquarters on the Western banks of the Volga. Soviet defenses were centered around a series of factories near the river and Chuikov’s HQ frequently became perilously close to the fighting. By late September, the Soviet defenders occupied only a 25 kilometer line along the Volga’s West bank, ranging from half a kilometer to two kilometers into the city (Maule, 277). Soviet units laid all sorts of mines, launched ambushes from the ruins created by the Luftwaffe’s on-going bombardment, took shelter in the sewers and industrial pipes, and struggled against the Germans for every room. Chuikov proved to be a master of urban warfare as he constantly frustrated the VI army’s attempts to execute attacks aimed at driving the Russians from the West Bank.
Germany poured hordes of men and all sorts of military hardware into the fray while Russia continued to sustain their defense with scantly populated units; neither side permitted their troops to relinquish ground. Stalin had issued order #227 earlier in 1942 and Hitler had instituted a similar policy of absolutely no retreating, under any circumstances. Neither Hitler nor Stalin entertained even the faintest idea of conceding to defeat at Stalingrad. The following excerpt of a November 11th German assault upon a Soviet-held area of the city gives a sense of the level of desperation:
“On both sides every soldier knew that prisoners were no longer taken. The soldiers, both German and Russian, locked in this furious combat were more like beasts of prey than men. Inflamed with alcohol and benzedrene – for no sane, sober man, however vicious, could bring himself to fight with such animal ferocity – filthy, red-eyed, bearded and stinking, these wolfmen shot and stabbed, hacked and kicked and battered each other. The fighting went on for four days and nights until only soldiers of the Red Army were still alive” (Maule, 281).
Similar episodes of brutality were more the norm than the exception at Stalingrad.There would be no quarter, no mercy, and certainly no end to the fighting until one side had been totally defeated.Single buildings even remained contested with Germans and Soviets fighting each other from alternate floors.
As if the fighting wasn’t harsh enough, each side had to contend with the sub-zero temperatures of a freezing Russian winter as well. Freezing weather proved to be as deadly to the Germans as combat as tens of thousands of soldiers suffered from frostbite and died from exposure in their wholly inadequate summer uniforms. Beyond sapping the German manpower, freezing temperatures also rendered Germany’s tanks and vehicles unserviceable as engines froze and repairs made impossible without access to spare parts. The same armored vehicles that had once conquered Western Europe were now of little use beyond serving as wind-shelters for the freezing infantry.
The situation became increasingly dire after a gargantuan Russian counterattack with approximately 500,000 infantry backed by 2,000 pieces of artillery successfully broke through Germany’s perimeter to the North and South of Stalingrad on November 23. Ironically, the Soviets employed the same infamous pincer movement that the nazi’s had once perfected at Smolensk against them now at Stalingrad, trapping the remaining 250,000 or so soldiers of the VI Army inside the city (Maule 282). Little more than a labyrinth of rubble at this point, there was virtually no food for the German occupiers. Strategically, the value of Stalingrad had depreciated so much that its value had become purely nominal, with the name Stalingrad constituting the only reason hundreds of thousands of men were still engaged in a fight to the death.
Because a break-out was strictly forbidden under Hitler’s no retreat policy, the encircled Germans somehow survived more than two months off air dropped supplies. As in most military operations, complications inevitably arose and the Luftwaffe’s fleet of 225 transport planes rarely had more than 80 serviceable aircraft at one time (Maule 288). Pressure from the Soviet forces on the ground further restricted Luftwaffe operations by re-taking airfields and forcing German aircraft to operate only at night in fear of Soviet air defenses. Limited supply drops paid a heavy toll upon the defenders’ nourishment as some resorted to eating the 10,000 horses of the entrapped Romanian cavalry division.
By January 20th, Defeat was all but certain for the over 100,000 remaining Germans inside Stalingrad when the final German-controlled airfield was overrun and captured. This eliminated the VI army’s only avenue for resupply and with it any hope of surviving through the winter. Knowing full well the consequences facing the besieged Germans, Hitler attempted to dissuade their commander, General Friedrich Von Paulus, from surrendering by promoting him to the rank of Field Marshall on January 30th. This was done in the vain hope that Von Paulus would rather commit suicide than go down as the first German Field Marshal to surrender his command to the enemy.
Regardless of precedent, Von Paulus recognized the folly of any future resistance as his men were freezing, starving, out of ammunition, and totally reliant upon melting snow for drinking water. Without supplies or a way of procuring any, Von Paulus surrendered on January 31, 1943, one day after being promoted by Hitler. By February 2nd, aside from a few stubborn pockets of those fighting till the death, the entire German VI army had capitulated. Approximately 91,000 German prisoners, slightly less than 25% of VI army’s original contingent were thought to be captured at Stalingrad (Maule, 290). Of these, only 6,000 ever returned back to Germany alive.
Following the crushing defeat at Stalingrad, Germany would never quite recover from such a total loss. This was the first time the German propaganda network was compelled to admit Germany had actually suffered a set back because there was no hiding the destruction of an entire army group. Furthermore, it was a loss Germany could ill afford against a Soviet enemy that was quickly eclipsing Germany’s reserves of manpower and materiel. Although the war would endure for over two more grueling years, the Soviets had seized the initiative and delivered an irrecoverable blow to Nazi Germany.
Maule, H. (1972). Stalingrad. In The Great Battles of World War II (pp. 258-290). London: The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited.