Battle of Stalingrad

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Template:Battlebox The Battle of Stalingrad was a major turning point in World War II and is considered one of the bloodiest and largest battles in human history. The battle was marked by unprecedented brutality and the disregard for civilian casualties on both sides, as well as a testiment to the world the scale of devastation the Eastern Front had reached as a result of clash of ideologies. The battle is considered to include: the German bombing campaign of the southern Russian city of Stalingrad (today Volgograd); the German march towards the city; the battle inside the city itself; and, the Soviet counter-offensive which eventually trapped and destroyed the German and other Axis forces in and around the city. Total casualties are estimated at up to two million. The lack of exact data is the result of the Soviet government's refusal at the time to calculate the losses for fear the sacrifice might have proven too high. The Axis powers lost about a quarter of their total manpower on the Eastern Front, and never completely recovered from the defeat. For the Soviets, the victory at Stalingrad marked the start of the liberation of the Soviet Union, leading to eventual victory over Nazi Germany in May 1945.

Background

On 22 June 1941 Germany and its Axis allies invaded the Soviet Union, quickly advancing deep into Soviet territory. Having suffered defeat after defeat during the summer and autumn of 1941, Soviet forces counter-attacked in the Battle of Moscow in December 1941. The exhausted German forces, ill-equipped for winter warfare and with overstretched supply lines, were stopped in their drive towards the capital and in some cases driven back.

The Germans stabilized their front by spring 1942. Plans to launch another offensive against Moscow were discarded, however, as Army Group Centre had been too heavily weakened. Part of the German military philosophy was to attack where least expected, so that rapid gains could be made. An attack on Moscow was seen as too predictable by some, most notably Hitler. For this reason new offensives in the north and south were considered. Along with this, the German high command knew that time was running out for them as the United States had entered WWII following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Hitler wanted to end the fighting on the Eastern Front or at least subdue it to a minimum before the US had a chance to get deeply involved in the war in Europe. A drive into the southern USSR would secure control of oil-rich Caucasia, as well as the Volga River, a backbone of Soviet transportation from Central Asia. A German victory in the southern Soviet Union would severely damage Stalin's war machine and the Soviet economy. Another resource desired by Germany in this area was agricultural production.

Operation Blau

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Operation Blue: German advances from 7 May 1942 to 18 November 1942

Army Group South was selected for a sprint forward through the southern Russian steppes into the Caucasus to capture vital Soviet oil fields. This summer offensive was code-named Fall Blau ("Case Blue"). It was to include the 6th and 17th Armies and the 4th and 1st Panzer Armies. In 1941 Army Group South had conquered Ukraine, and was positioned in the area of the planned offensive.

Hitler intervened, however, in the strategic planning, ordering the Army Group to be split in two. Army Group South (A), under the command of Erich von Manstein and Ewald von Kleist, was to continue advancing south towards the Caucasus as planned. Army Group South (B), including Friedrich Paulus's 6th Army and Hermann Hoth's 4th Panzer Army, was to move east towards the river Volga and the city of Stalingrad.

The capture of Stalingrad was important to Hitler for several reasons. It was a major industrial city on the banks of the river Volga (a vital transport route between the Caspian Sea and northern Russia). Its capture would secure the left flank of the German armies as they advanced into the Caucasus. Finally, the fact that the city bore the name of Hitler's arch enemy, Joseph Stalin, made the city's capture an ideological and propaganda coup. Stalin also had an ideological and propaganda interest in defending the city which bore his name.

The Battle Opens

The start of Operation Blau had been planned for late May 1942. However, a number of German and Romanian units that were involved in Blau were then in the process of besieging Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula. Delays in ending the siege pushed back the start date for Blau several times, and the city did not fall until the end of June. A smaller action was taken in the meantime, pinching off a Soviet salient in the Second Battle of Kharkov, which resulted in the pocketing of large Soviet force on 22 May.

Blau finally opened as Army Group South began its attack into southern Russia on June 28, 1942. The German offensive started well. Soviet forces offered little resistance in the vast empty steppes, and started streaming eastward in disarray. Several attempts to form defensive lines failed when other German units flanked Soviet defensive lines. Two major pockets were formed and destroyed, the first northeast of Kharkov on June 2nd, a second around Millerovo, Rostov Oblast a week later.

Meanwhile the 2nd Hungarian Army and the 4th Panzer Army had launched an assault on Voronezh, capturing the city on 5 July.

The initial advance of the 6th Army was so successful that Hitler intervened, and ordered the 4th Panzer Army to join Army Group South (A) to the south. A massive traffic jam resulted when the 4th Army and the 6th Army both required the few roads in the area. Both armies were stopped dead while they attempted to clear the resulting mess of thousands of vehicles. The delay was astonishingly long, it is thought that it cost the advance at least one week. With the advance now slowed, Hitler changed his mind and re-assigned the 4th Panzer back to the attack on Stalingrad.

By the end of July the Germans had pushed the Soviets across the Don River. At this point the Germans established defensive lines using the Armies of their Italian, Hungarian and Romanian allies. The 6th Army was only a few dozen kilometers from Stalingrad, and the 4th Panzer, now to their south, turned north to help take the city. To the south, Group A was pushing far into the Caucasus, but their advance slowed. Group A's forces were deployed far to the south and provided no support to Group B in the north.

Now German intentions became clear to the Soviet commanders: in July Soviet plans were developed for the defense in Stalingrad. Soviet troops still moving eastward before the Germans offensive were ordered into the Stalingrad. The eastern border of the Stalingrad was the broad Volga river, and over the river additional Soviet units were deployed. This combination of units became the newly formed 62nd Army under the command of Vasily Chuikov. Its mission was to defend Stalingrad at all costs.

The Battle in the City

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Streetfighting inside Stalingrad

Stalin forbade the evacuation of civilians from the city on the premise that this would encourage greater resistance from the city's defenders. Civilians including women and children were put to work building trenchworks and protective fortifications. A massive German air bombardment on 23 August caused a firestorm, killing thousands of civilians and turning Stalingrad into a vast landscape of rubble and burnt ruins. Eighty percent of the living space in the city was destroyed. The burden of the initial fighting for the city proper fell on the 1077th AA regiment: a unit made up mainly of young women volunteers who had no training on engaging ground targets. Despite this and with no support available from other Soviet units the AA gunners stayed at their posts and took on the advancing panzers. The 16th Panzer Division reportedly had to fight the 1077th's gunners "shot for shot" until all 37 AA batteries had been destroyed or overrun. By the end of August, Army Group South (B) had finally reached the Volga to the north of Stalingrad. Another advance to the river south of the city followed. In the initial phase the Soviet defence relied extensively on "Workers militias" composed of workers not directly involved in war production. Tanks continued to be produced and manned by volunteer crews of factory workers. They were driven directly from the factory floor to the front line often without even being painted and without gunsights.

By 1 September, 1942, the Soviets could only supply their forces in Stalingrad by perilous crossings of the Volga. Amid the debris of the now wrecked city, the Soviet 62nd Army formed defense lines, with strongpoints situated in houses and factories. Fighting in the city was fierce and desperate. Stalin's Order No. 227 of July 27 1942 had decreed that all those who retreated or otherwise left their positions without orders to do so could be summarily shot. "Not a step back!" was the slogan. The Germans pushing forward into Stalingrad suffered heavy casualties. Soviet reinforcements were shipped across the river Volga from the eastern bank under constant bombardment by German artillery and planes. The life expectancy of a newly arrived Soviet private in the city dropped to less than twenty-four hours. German military doctrine was based on the principle of combined-arms teams and close co-operation by infantry, engineers, artillery; and ground-attack aircraft. To counter this, Soviet commanders adopted the simple expedient of always keeping the front lines as close together as physically possible. This put the German infantry in the position of having to fight on their own or be endangered by their own supporting fire. Bitter fighting raged for every street, every factory, every house, basement and staircase. The Germans, calling this unseen urban warfare Rattenkrieg ("rat-war"), bitterly joked about having captured the kitchen but still fighting for the living-room.

Fighting on Mamayev Kurgan, a prominent blood-soaked hill above the city, was particularly merciless. The height changed hands several times. During one Soviet counter-attack to recapture Mamayev Kurgan, the Soviets lost an entire division of 10,000 men in one day. At the Grain Elevator, a huge grain processing complex dominated by a single enormous silo, combat was so close that Soviet and German soldiers could hear each other breathe. Combat at the Grain Elevator went on for weeks until the German army reduced the position. In another part of the city, an apartment building defended by a Soviet platoon under the command of Yakov Pavlov was turned into an impenetrable fortress. The building, later called "Pavlov's House", oversaw a square in the city centre. The soldiers surrounded it with minefields, set up machine-gun positions at the windows, and breached the walls in the basement for better communications.

With no end to the fighting in sight, the Germans started transferring heavy artillery to the city, including several gigantic 600 mm mortars. Soviet artillery on the Eastern bank of the Volga continued to place German positions under fire. The Soviet defenders used the resulting ruins as defensive positions. German tanks became useless in heaps of rubble up to eight meters high. If they still were able to move forward, they were taken under Soviet anti-tank fire from the rooftops.

Soviet snipers also successfully used the ruins to hide in. They inflicted heavy casualties on the Germans. The most successful sniper was only identified as "Zikan", being credited with 224 kills by November 20, 1942. Vasily Grigoryevich Zaitsev, subject of the Hollywood film Enemy at the Gates was credited with 149 kills during the battle.

For both Stalin and for Hitler, the battle of Stalingrad became a question of life and death. Soviet command moved the Red Army's strategic reserves from the Moscow area to the lower Volga, and transferred all available aircraft from the entire country to Stalingrad. The strain on both military commanders was immense: Paulus developed an uncontrollable tic in his eye, while Chuikov experienced an outbreak of eczema that required him to bandage his hands completely.

In November, after three months of carnage and slow and costly advance, the Germans finally reached the river banks, capturing 80% of the ruined city and splitting the remaining Soviet forces into two narrow pockets. In addition, ice-floes on the Volga now prevented boats and tugs from supplying the Soviet defenders across the river. Nevertheless the fighting, especially on the slopes of Mamayev Kurgan and inside the factory area in the northern part of the city, continued as fiercely as ever. The battles for the Red October tractor factory and the Barrikady factory became world famous. While Soviet soldiers defended their positions and took the Germans under fire, factory workers repaired damaged Soviet tanks and other weapons in the direct vicinity of the battlefield, sometimes on the battlefield itself.

The Soviet Counter-attack

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The Soviet counter-attack at Stalingrad

During the siege the German, Hungarian, and Romanian armies protecting Army Group South (B)'s flanks had pressed their headquarters for support. The 2nd Hungarian Army (consisting of mainly ill-equipped and ill-trained units) were given the task of defending a 200 km section of the front north of Stalingrad. This resulted in a very thin line of defense with some parts where 1-2km stretches were being guarded by a single platoon. Soviet forces held several points on the south bank of the river and presented a potentially serious threat to Army Group South (B). However, Hitler was so focused on the city itself that requests from the flanks for support were refused. The chief of the German army general staff OKW, Franz Halder, expressed concerns about Hitler's preoccupation with the city, pointing at the Germans' weak flanks. Hitler replaced Halder in mid-October with General Kurt Zeitzler.

In Autumn the Soviet general Georgy Zhukov, responsible for strategic planning in the Stalingrad area, concentrated massive Soviet forces in the steppes to the north and south of the city. The German northern flank was particularly vulnerable, since it was defended by Hungarian and Romanian units which suffered from inferior equipment and low morale. Zhukov's plan was to keep pinning the Germans down in the city, and then to punch through the overstretched and weakly defended German flanks and to surround the Germans inside Stalingrad. The operation was code-named "Uranus" and launched in conjunction with Operation Mars, which was directed at Army Group Center.

On November 19, 1942 the Red Army unleashed Uranus. The attacking Soviet units under the command of General Nikolai Vatutin consisted of three complete armies, the 1st Guard, 5th Tank and 21st Army, including a total of 18 infantry divisions, eight tank brigades, two motorized brigades, six cavalry divisions and one antitank brigade. The preparations for the attack could be heard by the Romanians, who continued to push for reinforcements, only to be refused again. Thinly spread, outnumbered and poorly equipped, the 3rd Romanian Army, which held the northern flank of the German 6th Army, was shattered after an almost miraculous one-day defense.

On November 20, a second Soviet offensive (two armies) was launched to the south of Stalingrad, against points held by the Romanian 4th Army Corps. The Romanian forces, made up primarily of cavalry, collapsed almost immediately. Soviet forces raced west in a pincer movement, and met two days later near the town of Kalach, sealing the ring around Stalingrad. About 250,000 German, Romanian and Italian soldiers, as well as some Croatian units and volunteer subsidiary troops found themselves trapped inside the resulting pocket, along with the surviving Soviet civilians and several thousands of Soviet soldiers whom the Germans had taken captive during the battle. Not all German soldiers from the 6th Army were trapped: 50.000 were brushed aside outside the pocket. Soviet military success has been notoriously contributed by newly developed Katyusha weapons, which were nearly perfect in destroying enemy tanks. Katyushas were a multiple simultaneous rocket launches installed on a simple vehicle, dropping many (up to 48) rockets within roughly 1 meter distance from each other and leaving little room for an error.

Hitler declared in a public speech on September 30th that the German army would never leave the city. German army chiefs pushed for an immediate breakout to a new line on the west of the Don. Hermann Göring instead claimed that the Luftwaffe could supply the 6th Army with an "air bridge." This would allow the Germans in the city to fight on while a relief force could be assembled, a plan that had been used successfully a year earlier at Demyansk pocket on a much smaller scale (an army corps versus an entire army). The German Sixth Army was the largest unit of this type in the world, almost twice as large as a regular German army. Also trapped in the "pocket" was a corps of the Fourth Panzer Army. It should have been clear that supplying the pocket by air was impossible: the Luftwaffe's carrying capacity after the Battle of Crete had not been reinforced, and the maximum 300 tonnes they could deliver a day would be less than the 500 needed by the pocket. However, Hitler backed Göring's plan and re-iterated his order of "no surrender" to his trapped armies.

The air supply mission failed almost immediately. Harsh winter weather and heavy Soviet anti-aircraft fire made maintaining the air bridge almost impossible. In general only 10 percent of the needed supplies could be delivered. Those transport planes which made it would evacuate the sick and wounded when taking off from the besieged enclave. The 6th Army slowly starved. Pilots were shocked to find the troops assigned to offloading the planes too exhausted and hungry to unload food.

Soviet forces consolidated their positions around Stalingrad, and fierce fighting to shrink the pocket began. An attack by a German battlegroup formed to relieve the trapped armies from the South, Operation Wintergewitter ("Winter Storm") was successfully fended off by the Soviets in December. The full impact of the harsh Russian winter set in. The Volga froze solid, allowing the Soviets to supply their forces in the city more easily. The trapped Germans rapidly ran out of heating fuel and medical supplies, and thousands started dying of frostbite, malnutrition and disease.

In January the Soviets launched a second offensive, Operation Saturn, which attempted to punch through the Italian army on the Don and take Rostov. If successful, this offensive would trap the remainder of Army Group South in the Caucasus. The Germans set up a "mobile defense" in which small units would hold towns until supporting armor could arrive. The Soviets never got close to Rostov, but the fighting forced von Manstein to extract Group A from the Caucasus and restabilize the frontline some 250 km away from the city. The 6th Army was now beyond all hope of German reinforcement. The German troops in Stalingrad were not told this, however, and continued to believe that reinforcements were on their way. Some German officers requested that Paulus defy Hitler's orders to stand fast and instead attempt to break out of the Stalingrad pocket. Paulus refused, as he abhorred the thought of disobeying orders.

Soviet Victory

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German POWs: The staff of Field Marshal Paulus

The Germans inside the pocket retreated from the suburbs of Stalingrad to the city itself. The loss of the two airfields at Pitomnik and Gumrak meant an end to air supplies and to the evacuation of the wounded. The Germans were now literally starving, and running out of ammunition. Nevertheless they continued to resist stubbornly, partly because they believed the Soviets would execute those who surrendered. The Soviets, in turn, were initially surprised by the large number of German forces they had trapped, and had to reinforce their encircling forces. Bloody urban warfare began again in Stalingrad, but this time it was the Germans who were pushed back to the banks of the Volga.

Hitler promoted Paulus to Generalfeldmarschall on January 30, 1943. Since no German field marshal had ever been taken prisoner, Hitler assumed that Paulus would fight on or take his own life. Nevertheless, when Soviet forces closed in on Paulus' headquarters in a ruined department store, Paulus surrendered. The remnants of the German forces in Stalingrad surrendered on February 2, 1943; 91,000 tired and starving Germans were taken captive. To the delight of the Soviet forces and the dismay of the Reich, the prisoners included 22 generals. Hitler was dismayed with the Field Marshall's surrender and confided that "Paulus stood at the doorstep of eternal glory but made an about-face".

Only 6,000 of the 91,000 German prisoners of war survived their captivity and returned home. Already weakened by disease, starvation and lack of medical care during the encirclement, they were sent to labour camps all over the Soviet Union, where most of them died of overwork and malnutrition. A handful of senior officers were taken to Moscow and used for propaganda purposes. Some, including Paulus, signed anti-Hitler statements which were broadcast to German troops. General Walther von Seydlitz-Kurzbach offered to raise an anti-Hitler army from the Stalingrad survivors, but the Soviets did not accept this offer. It was not until 1955 that the last of the handful of survivors were repatriated.

The German public was not officially told of the disaster until the end of January 1943, though positive reports in the German propaganda media about the battle had stopped in the weeks before the announcement. It was not the first major setback of the German military, but the crushing defeat at Stalingrad was unmatched in scale. On February 18 the minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, held his famous Sportpalast speech in Berlin, encouraging the Germans to accept a total war which would claim all resources and efforts from the entire population.

By any measure the battle of Stalingrad was arguably the largest single battle in human history. It raged for 199 days. Numbers of casualties are difficult to compile owing to the vast scope of the battle and the fact the Soviet government didn't allow estimates to be run for fear the cost would have proven too high. In its initial phases, the Germans inflicted heavy casualties on Soviet formations, many of whom were rushed across the river and thrown into action without even a rifle; however, the Soviet counter stroke cut off and annihilated the entire 6th army (which was exceptionally strong) and parts of the 4th Panzer Army. Various scholars have estimated the Axis suffered 850,000 casualties of all types among all branches of the German armed forces and its allies: 400,000 Germans, 200,000 Romanians, 130,000 Italians, 120,000 Hungarians and as many as 50,000 turncoat Soviets were killed, wounded or missing. An unusually high proportion of total German casualties were killed and captured (96,000 of whom were prisoners). Soviet military losses were more than 750,000 (although some estimates put them as high as 1.2 million). More than 40,000 Soviet civilians died in Stalingrad and its suburbs during a single week of aerial bombing as the 6th and 4th armies approached the city; the total number of civilians killed in the regions outside the city is unknown, but probably makes this number much higher. In all, a total of anywhere from 1.7 million to 2.2 million casualties resulted from battle, making by far the largest battle in human history.

For the heroism of the Soviet defenders of Stalingrad, the city was awarded the title Hero City in 1945. After the War, in the 1960s, a colossal monument of "Mother Russia" was erected on Mamayev Kurgan, the hill overlooking the city. The statue forms part of a memorial complex which includes ruined walls deliberately left the way they were after the battle. The Grain Elevator, as well as Pavlov's House, the apartment building whose defenders eventually held out for two months until they were relieved, can still be visited. One may today even find bones and rusty metal splinters on Mamayev Kurgan, symbol of both the human suffering during the battle and the successful yet costly resistance against the German invasion.

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The 52-meter-tall statue of Mother Russia crowns the Mamayev Kurgan.

External links

Dramatization

References

  • Antony Beevor (1998), Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege 1942-1943, Viking, 1998, hardcover, ISBN 0670870951; paperback, 1999, ISBN 0140284583
  • William Craig (1973), Enemy at the Gates: the Battle for Stalingrad. New York, Penguin Books. ISBN 0142000000
  • Joachim Wieder et al, Stalingrad - Memories and Reassessments, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1998. ISBN 1854094602

See also

Other turning-point of the war.


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