#1 Operation BarbarossaJune 22nd 1941. Germany invaded the USSR (Soviet Union), violating their common pact of neutrality, the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. More than four million Axis soldiers, belonging mostly to Germany, Romania, Hungary and Italy, were divided in three groups of armies: North, Centre, and South. Proof of Hitler and the Germans counting on a short war, is that some of their protagonists failed miserably to hit the mark with their forecasts. Captain Von Rosenbach-Lepinski said: “In four weeks we’ll be home”. The initial advance of the Wehrmacht (German Armed Forces) was swift and captured millions of Soviet soldiers during the summer months, but the Soviet Union was vast, and the German offensive was stalled in the Russian winter, and repelled just within 30 km from Moscow, their main goal.
#2 The road to StalingradTheir offensive resumed in spring 1942, this time down-south in the Caucasus, where the Group of Armies South had taken most of the Ukraine in 1941. Their advance threatened to capture the Baku oilfields, the main source of oil for the USSR. In June 1942, Hitler decided to split the Army Group South into Army Group A and B. Group A was to seize the Caucasus and secure the Baku oilfields, which would have virtually immobilised the Red Army. Meanwhile, the Group B, formed by the Sixth German Army and elements of the Fourth Panzer Army, were to protect Group A’s flank, by taking the area outside the city of Stalingrad (modern day Volgograd). The German troops were excellently coordinated, and despite their Panzers (tanks) being inferior to the versatile Soviet T-34, concentrated Panzer columns, and their superior manoeuvrability, quickly turned the T-34s into junk, amidst the Ukrainian steppe. In addition to, the leadership of the Red Army had been critically purged before and during the war. Stalin and his trust issues. For the Soviet soldier the choice was clear. Surrendering was considered a treason to the Motherland, and the families of the surrendered suffered ostracism and deprivation from the state. Stalin’s famous order of 1942 ‘Not a step back’, had lines of machine guns manned by the NKVD (secret police), shooting at their own fleeing comrades.
#3 The civilians of StalingradConvinced of the immediate collapse of the Soviet Armies in the Caucasus, Hitler ordered the fateful decision of taking the city of Stalingrad. Capture of Stalingrad meant splitting Russia in two, and Stalin urged Chuikov, commander of the 62nd Army defending the city, to protect it or die in the attempt. Civilians were forbidden to evacuate to the safe side of the Volga. More than 44.000 would die in the ensuing battle. On Sunday 23th August, the Luftwaffe (German Air Force), flying the Russian sky unopposed, began to pulverize Stalingrad. The commander of the Fourth Air Fleet, Wolfram Freiherr von Richtofen (cousin of the famous First World War Ace, the ‘Red Baron’), failed to realize that the debris created by the 1000 tons of bombs, was creating the perfect environment of urban warfare, suited for ambushes. At their pleasure, the German aircraft began to shoot the hundreds of boats in the Volga, evacuating the wounded, and bringing fresh supplies and recruits to die in Stalingrad. Needless to say, the NKVD shoot any deserters who jumped in the water, panicking because of the screaming sirens of the German Stukas machine-gunning them.
#4 The Snipers of StalingradOn 13th September, units of the Sixth German Army, under Friedrich Paulus command, reached Stalingrad’s outskirts. The defending 62nd and 64th Army had but 40.000 men left and few tanks, however, they made the most of the debris, improvising it into barricades, and grooming a soldier the Germans feared most than anything else: the sniper. Under legendary shooters like Vasily Zaytsev, ‘sniperism’ became a doctrine, and thousands rushed to learn from him. Sixth Army officers and soldiers learnt to crawl, and fear constantly for their lives, just as the Red Army had had reasons enough to fear snipers like Simo Häyhä, during the 1939 Winter War. The most strategic point of the city was the Mamayev Kurgan, a hill whose emplacement allowed German artillery to batter the boats in the Volga and the Soviet positions at ease. The crudest battles took place there, constantly disputing the ownership of the hill. For many years after the battle, fragments of bone and bullets could still be found on the slopes.
#5 No land beyond the VolgaChuikov was in dire straits. Germans at his threshold, and Stalin showing his teeth on his garden, but fortunately for him and his men, the 13th Guards Division commanded by Rodimtsev, crossed the Volga in time to save the day. Their motto became: ‘There was no land beyond the Volga’, and their intervention crucially stalled the German offensive. The Landser (German soldier) hated Stalingrad’s urban fighting. Their characteristic Blitzkrieg was useless there. Heavy resistance took place in every house, with flamethrowers, grenades and ambushes as the main domestic appliances. Danger came from everywhere, with Zaytsev and the snipers adding a further strain, if not a bullet, in the German head. The Landser contemptuously called the battle of Stalingrad, Rattenkrieg (War of the rats), in permanent fear of the camouflaged Russians, awaiting from behind the rubble or the basements, to shoot at his back while passing by.
#6 The fall of Stalingrad?11th November. The Sixth Army begun their final assault. Zhukov, the deputy commander-in-chief of the Red Army, second only to Stalin, had knew all along Stalingrad couldn’t resist forever. Two months ago, on 12th September, Zhukov and Vasilevsky, Chief of Staff, had presented a plan to Stalin.
#7 The turning point of StalingradThursday 19th 1942. Zhukov and Vailevsky’s Operation Uranus began. Their goal was the destruction of the enemy flanks and the encirclement of the Sixth Army within Stalingrad using two main throngs. Without anti-tank weapons, and only light tanks to face the fearsome T-34, Romanian and Italian resistance soon collapsed. The Soviet throngs, north and south of Stalingrad, advanced quickly towards their meeting point in Kalach River, driving through behind the German lines, while the Sixth Army, unaware, kept fighting in Stalingrad. Paulus dismissed all warnings, claiming both the sectors under attack were out of his area of responsibility. Paulus, a general lacking initiative and scared to death of Hitler, decided to wait for orders from the Führer headquarters. According to Anthony Beevor, had Paulus withdrawn the tanks engaged in Stalingrad, and launch those against the throngs behind the Sixth Army, encirclement would had been repelled. With his decision of, literally doing nothing, Paulus sealed the fate of the Sixth Army, and perhaps of the whole war. We all should be worshiping Paulus right now.
#8 The Kessel and the ratsFor the Soviet soldiers spearheading Operation Uranus, it was the most joyous day of the war, for it was time to exact revenge on those who desecrated the motherland. On 22nd November, the encirclement was completed. The Sixth Army and parts of the Fourth Panzer Army were trapped between the Volga and the Don rivers. A total of more than 290.000 Axis soldiers, including captured Russians who fought with them (called Hiwis). During the first months of war, when the Germans trapped Soviet Armies, they called those pockets of encircled enemies, Kessel (cauldron). Now they were the ones being cooked in a Kessel, short of supplies, ammunition and with an increase of dysentery and lice. Hitler was assured by Göring, commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, that the Sixth Army would be fully air-supplied. Needless to say, supplies delivered were ridiculously short, but Hitler vowed, never to renounce Stalingrad, and urged Paulus to resist, until help would come. With the Army Group A in retreat from the Caucasus, in order to avoid their own encirclement, the Sixth Army begun to realize they had been left on their own. Some choose to believe in Hitler’s promises of rescue, but others acknowledged they were a necessary sacrifice, in order to save Erich von Manstein’s Army Group A. Meanwhile, the Red Army regained the Caucasus with Operation Little Saturn, and blocked the rescue attempt of the Forth Panzer Army.
#9 The end of the bloodiest battle everOn the 10th of January the Red Army was ready for Operation Koltso (Ring). The seven Soviet armies pinning the Sixth Army in Stalingrad begun to crush the Kessel. German resistance was fanatical, and despite starvation, diseases, frostbites and gangrene, despite the awareness of the futility of resisting, the Landser turned down any idea of surrender. The Soviet armies suffered 26.000 casualties during the first days, but their sheer advantage in men and material, had already decided the outcome of the battle. The Sixth Army was virtually out of food, oil and ammunition. On the 31st of January, units of Shumilov’s 64th Army reached Paulus’ Headquarters, and discussed terms of surrender with Paulus second. Despite allowing commanders to surrender independently, Paulus constantly refused to give the general order. An isolated northern pocket of the Kessel, under the authority of general Strecker, withstood the increasing Soviet pressure for another two days.
#10 AftermathThe battle of Stalingrad officially ended on 2nd February, 1943. Of the 91.000 German prisoners captured in the Kessel, barely 5.000 would see home again, even when the war ended. The Red Army had suffered 1.1 million casualties, almost half of them fatal. The industrial city on the Volga, once home of 850.000 souls, was a burnt skeleton with 10.000 starved civilians.
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This post was written using Antony’s Beevor masterpiece of history. If you like to know more in detail about Stalingrad don’t hesitate to check this free preview and buy the book.