Exactly 67 years ago, on February 2, 1943, one of the bloodiest battles of World War II ended. The nearly seven-month siege of Stalingrad claimed the lives of at least half a million Soviet and German soldiers. Three times as many were wounded, missing or taken prisoner.
By the spring of 1942, the Eastern Front had stabilized. Actually, it was stabilized by a huge melt-down that made it difficult, and sometimes impossible, for heavy equipment to move. German strategy of blitzkrieg strategy – blitzkrieg strategy – allowed Wehrmacht troops to advance far into USSR territory. To Hitler’s despair, however, they did not capture such strategic locations as Moscow or Leningrad. Moreover, they began to run out of tank fuel imported from Romania.
A sick man’s plan
The Führer, with the opposition of his generals, insisted on a continuous offensive by the German army. But this time no longer in the north and center of the USSR, but in the south. He hoped that this would allow troops to reach the Caucasus, while seizing oil fields on the Caspian Sea and Stalingrad – an important industrial center and transportation hub. This is how the plan of operation “Fall Blau” was created.
The Germans threw four armies into action. Two armies were to conquer Stalingrad: 6th Army under General Friedrich Paulus attacking from northwest and 4th Panzer Army under General Hermann Hoth striking from south. They were to be assisted by two Romanian armies. The plan was that after capturing the city, the armies would head south toward Baku.
Clash of two tyrants
The Germans did not expect to encounter such strong resistance. The defense of Stalingrad was led, commanding the 62nd Army, by General Vasily Chuikov – a specialist in urban warfare. On Stalin’s orders, he turned the city, which stretched for nearly 30 km along the Volga River, into a fortress. In Stalingrad, bombarded day and night by the Luftwaffe, the Red Army waited for the Germans to attack.
The Russian plan was to draw Wehrmacht troops into battle in the streets of the city, where – amidst the rubble of demolished buildings – German tanks would be useless.
The Germans entered Stalingrad on August 23, 1942, at which point the fighting began, not for the entire city, but for every meter of it. The elite of the German army – 330 thousand soldiers of Paulus – fiercely pushed the Red Army of General Chuikov in the direction of the Volga River. From its other bank katyusha guns were continuously fired towards German positions and supplies were delivered by barges. The Russians, under Stalin’s pressure and in fear of NKVD barrage units that would execute deserters without trial, did not retreat. Streets, hills, or houses changed hands many times.
And it looked like this:
Locked in the maw
Russian relief did not arrive until November 19. The Red Army command foresaw and used what Hitler, overwhelmed by the desire to seize as much territory of the USSR as possible, did not see – namely, that the weakened Germans were not able to hold the southern front stretched to the limits.
The Russians launched an attack with as many as five armies on the Romanian armies defending the northern flank. From the south, three armies were thrown at the 4th Panzer Army.
Faced with a significant Red Army advantage, the Romanians very quickly retreated from their positions. The Germans were gradually locked in an encirclement. Gen. Paulus asked Hitler to withdraw his troops and regroup. The Führer strongly resisted, believing in Hermann Göring’s assurances that an air bridge could be created and supplies delivered that way. The Luftwaffe, however, did not have this capability – it was so weakened by the fighting that it could only transport one-fifth of its daily requirements. An attempt by General Erich von Manstein’s army to break the encirclement from outside also failed.
The final assault
In Stalingrad, surrounded from all sides by the Red Army, there were more than 150 thousand soldiers of General Paulus’ 6th Army. Gradually they began to lack everything. From hunger, cold and wounds 60 thousand soldiers died.
On January 10, 1943, after Paulus had rejected another offer of surrender, the Russians launched a final attack. After twelve days, the 6th Army commander reported to Hitler that his soldiers were out of ammunition. In response, he received a promotion to Field Marshal from the Führer and orders to hold his position.
On January 31, Paulus signed the unconditional surrender act and surrendered to the Russians. Fighting in the Stalingrad cauldron continued until February 2, although some German soldiers did not lay down their arms for another two weeks.
The Battle of Stalingrad, which was in fact a campaign consisting of several stages, is referred to as a watershed event of World War II. The defeated Wehrmacht did not achieve any strategic victory. The Red Army, on the other hand, began its march on Berlin.
The final toll of the seven-month siege of Stalingrad is unknown. One million soldiers died on the battlefield, from wounds, disease, starvation, but also in captivity long after the battle had ended. Some Russian sources state that Red Army soldiers alone died. 8 million.