When in June 1940 more than 5 million German soldiers launched an attack on the Soviet Union, Hitler and most of the Wehrmacht commanders were sure that victory over the eastern colossus was a matter of weeks – history, however, showed how greatly they were mistaken. Initially, the German war machine confidently pushed east into the USSR, brutally clearing the way to Moscow. However, it was there, as a result of an exhausting battle lasting from October 1941 to January 1942, that the Wehrmacht was defeated and pushed several hundred kilometers to the west.
When spring 1942 came and the Soviets coming from Moscow were finally stopped, Hitler didn’t even want to hear about trench warfare and bleeding out the enemy, even though his generals preferred this solution. His plan involved maintaining the front on its northern and central sections and striking at the oil fields in the Caucasus, which was supposed to weaken the USSR’s industry and thereby deliver a decisive blow to the enemy. This offensive, called “Fall Blau” (The Blue Plan), began in July 1942 with the forces of Army Group South, which included, among others, the famous 6th Army of General Friedrich Paulus. One city stood in the way of the Wehrmacht’s victory on the Eastern Front of World War II – it was Stalingrad.
This river is huge!
The Germans arrived in Stalingrad on August 23, 1942. Before them, as if protecting the city from the invader, flowed the Volga, a massive river known as the “mother of all Russian rivers”. German soldiers, who had circled the city from the north, saw dark smoke that quickly formed into a black cross and hovered over the buildings. This symbol was interpreted by them as a sign of death for the city; however, they did not know that it was indeed death, but for the German 6th Army.
Already on the first night after arriving at the city, the Luftwaffe began a terrible bombing of Stalingrad. On Hitler’s orders, the city was to be completely destroyed to erase Stalin’s name from the maps forever. 600 bombers, specifically brought in for this purpose, conducted the largest air raid on the Eastern Front during World War II. The greatest terror among the defenders was caused by the Junkers Ju 87, or Stuka – a bomber equipped with a siren, the distinctive sound of which intensified the fear of the air raid. Over the course of a week, the Luftwaffe dropped over 1000 tons of bombs on Stalingrad during 1600 combat flights. The city turned into a pile of stones, and the effect of the destruction was underscored by burning oil that had leaked from hit tanks on the banks of the Volga. The glow of fire over Stalingrad could be seen from 100 km away. The Soviets did not evacuate their civilian population from there, only party activists, as a result, the raids by German bombers caused the death of about 40,000 residents.
The siege of the city
The Russians were preparing for the city’s defense. Stalin’s order was “not a step back!”. The army had orders to hold Stalingrad at all costs, and the command did not order the evacuation of residents because their presence was to further motivate the soldiers to defend more effectively. The civilian population was also to help fortify the city. Children and adults dug trenches, built barricades and mounds, and carried supplies for the military. Any opposition was punished by being sent to the gulag, or death. This shows how cold and devoid of morality the calculation was that guided the Soviet command at the time. Ultimately, when it was already too late, seeing an exodus among the civilian population, women, elders, and children were allowed to evacuate – but they faced a journey either through the burning Volga or through German positions.
Discipline was maintained even more strictly among the military. Soldiers, seeing the hopeless situation around them, did not shy away from leaving their posts and deserting. They were punished for even the smallest deviations from party orders. During the defense of Stalingrad, about 13,000 Soviet soldiers were shot by their own commanders or political agents.
Meanwhile, Paulus’s German 6th Army was breaking through towards the city from the north and west, and Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army – from the south. On September 3rd, the ring around Stalingrad was closed. A murderous battle began for every street and every house on the western bank of the Volga. The new commander of the Soviet forces in Stalingrad, Lieutenant General Vasily Chuikov, ordered his troops to wage total war: any retreat was completely forbidden. The Soviet soldier had to defend “Stalin’s city” from the “German invader” at all costs. On September 13th, the Germans launched an assault on Mamaev Kurgan – a large hill that was the last command point of the Soviet forces on the western bank of the Volga. The Kurgan was constantly bombarded by the Luftwaffe and shelled by German artillery. Despite this, the Soviets still put up fierce resistance and defended the hill. The Soviet command sent reinforcements to the Kurgan: the 13th Guards Rifle Division. Before these people even reached the western bank of the Volga, 2/3 of the division’s strength was lost. Only 320 out of 10,000 people survived the battle.
On September 14, when the Germans broke into the center of Stalingrad, Hitler was certain that it would take them only a few more days at most to capture the entire city. The further fighting for the city was incredibly fierce, and the Wehrmacht’s offensive slowed down significantly. Some houses changed hands several times during the day, like the main railway station, which over the course of three days was captured 15 times by both sides. There were buildings where the ground floor belonged to the Germans, the first floor to the Soviets, the second floor to the Germans, and so on.
During the Battle of Stalingrad, the defense of the so-called Pavlov’s House took on a special dimension. This four-story building, located near the NKVD headquarters, was initially garrisoned by a platoon from the 42nd Guards Regiment at the start of the siege, but its commander was blinded shortly after the fighting began. A farmer named Yakov Pavlov took over the command and began to defend his property from the Wehrmacht. His squad managed to hold the building for 58 days, defending mainly on the 4th floor of the building – because the approaching German tanks could not raise their barrels high enough to fire. The defenders were supported by music from a phonograph, which played the same record all this time. Pavlov’s House symbolized the inhuman stubbornness with which the Soviets operated during the siege of Stalingrad.
“The city is almost ours!”
In mid-September, after a month of the heaviest fighting, the Germans had pushed the Soviets to the Volga. The conquest of the city by the Wehrmacht was so close that on September 17, Berlin newspapers had already printed editions announcing the capture of Stalingrad. The German and Soviet positions were separated by only 50 meters. Every meter of land was fiercely contested, sometimes using bayonets and shovels. The desired victory of the Nazis, however, was still not forthcoming, even though the scales of victory were tilting in their favor. Both Hitler and the entire German command knew that time was not on their side. A year earlier, a horrific Russian winter had halted the Wehrmacht, and the Germans intended to take the city while the weather was still favorable.
The Wehrmacht troops were shocked by the inhuman sacrifice of the Soviets in Stalingrad. An example is the story of one of the defenders, whose German bullet prematurely ignited one of the two Molotov cocktails he had prepared himself. To not lose the chance to destroy an enemy tank, he threw himself onto the enemy vehicle while still on fire and also set it alight. The advancing forces also recounted Red Army soldiers who, unable to pull the pin of a grenade with their hands, armed it by removing the pin with their teeth.
As the Battle of Stalingrad raged on with no end in sight, the German propaganda machine clumsily tried to explain to their compatriots why the army was still fighting and where such massive losses in personnel and equipment were coming from. They glorified the fallen, always adding the context of defending Europe against Bolshevism and dying gloriously for the Führer. They only mentioned successes and meticulously hid all information about defeats, often listing the enemy’s numerical superiority – but nothing more.
Terrible, bloody battles were still raging and by mid-November the defenders’ situation seemed hopeless. Units were lacking ammunition and supplies, as the ice floes floating on the Volga made river navigation impossible, and the manpower of most Soviet units was down to a maximum of 10% of their original strength. Despite the meager forces of the Red Army, the last few square kilometers of the western bank of the Volga remained unconquered and the Germans no longer had the strength to launch further attacks. Since the beginning of the offensive in Stalingrad, the Wehrmacht had lost about 1,000 tanks, 2,000 guns, 1,400 aircraft, and as many as 70,000 people killed, wounded, taken prisoner, or missing. The human losses were already irreplaceable – General Paulus had no one left to storm the Soviets’ last points of resistance. Hitler’s primary goal of defeating Stalin in his own city was not achieved.
As the battle for Stalingrad was at its peak, and the Germans were bleeding out trying to defeat the Soviets on the western bank of the Volga, the dictator of the Soviet Union – Joseph Stalin – summoned generals Vasilevsky and Zhukov to discuss a plan to save the city and push the Wehrmacht as far west as possible. The old generals presented the chief with a bold and clever plan, which was to strike at the enemy’s flanks, areas controlled by the Hungarians, Italians, and Romanians, and then encircle and destroy the 6th Army. They planned to take advantage of the fact that the Germans were dug into Stalingrad and had left the guarding of their flanks to their poorly armed and worse trained allies. The Soviets decided to exploit this weakness of the invaders and use their own tactics against them, which this time were to work against the Wehrmacht.
The implementation of the attack plan was quickly initiated, and the entire operation was given the name “Uranus”. The Soviets began to bring in and deploy additional forces that were to strike at the enemy’s flanks. Over 1,000,000 soldiers, 13,000 guns, 900 tanks, and 1,100 aircraft were to take up positions on three fronts around Stalingrad, all of which were carefully camouflaged by the Red Army and Soviet intelligence. Meanwhile, the defenders of Stalingrad had to manage with the absolute minimum of supplies that could be delivered to them – after all, carrying out the operation “Uranus” required a large number of people and equipment.
The Red Army launched an attack in a heavy snowstorm on November 19, 1942. The offensive was carried out from two sides, by the 31st Army from the north and the 51st, 57th, and 64th Armies from the south, with the support of the 5th Tank Army. The commanders of the three sections of the front were Lieutenant General Nikolai Vatutin, Lieutenant General Konstantin Rokossovsky, and Lieutenant General Andrei Yeremenko. The attack proved to have a stunning effect – the Italians, Hungarians, and Romanians did not stop the Red Army anywhere, and the latter even threw down their weapons upon seeing the advancing Soviets. The encirclement of the 6th Army was in full swing, and General Paulus, stationed in Stalingrad, did nothing to stop the attacker from further outflanking the Germans. Likewise, German command disregarded signals of an earlier concentration of the Red Army to the south and north of the city; Hitler was convinced that the Soviets were no longer capable of carrying out any major offensive on the Eastern Front. Furthermore, the Führer had an obsession with the absolute prohibition of German soldiers retreating from occupied territories – “Where the German soldier stands, no force shall move him from there.”
The Soviet encirclement of the 6th Army closed on November 22, 1942. In an area approximately 60 km by 40 km, about 350,000 German soldiers and their allies were surrounded. Some sensible Wehrmacht generals recognized the immense danger their army was in and advised attempting a breakout to the west before it was too late. However, Hitler’s order was clear – no retreat. The 6th Army was to be resupplied by air by Luftwaffe aircraft. This solution was, in effect, a death sentence for the German units in Stalingrad, as the Reich’s air forces did not have the capacity to drop even half the necessary supplies for Paulus’ men. Additionally, the freezing Russian winter was setting in, which the soldiers had to endure without winter equipment.
“What did they send this time? Is it cologne?”
On November 25th, the first Junkers landed in the encircled area with supplies for the besieged 6th Army. The Minister of Aviation of the Third Reich – Hermann Göring – mobilized everything that could fly. The Luftwaffe sent every available Ju 52 transporter to supply the encircled troops; old Ju 86s were also brought out from the hangars. Military pilots, aviation school students, and even Lufthansa pilots were thrown into action. Despite all this, it was not enough – on the best days, the besieged received only half the food and ammunition they needed. What’s worse, the Soviets kept pressing on, and over time, the number of airfields where German planes could land was dwindling. The situation wasn’t improved by the fact that the supplies often contained senseless items – once, as if for a joke, condoms were sent to the soldiers, another time it was cologne, or even roofing tar(!).
The 6th Army began to suffer from hunger and cold. Deprived of winter clothing and food supplies, they quickly started eating horses, which were the draft force for heavy equipment. Food rations were reduced literally from day to day. By the beginning of January 1943, the daily bread ration per person was only 50 grams. Soldiers even resorted to exhuming horse carcasses, which were then eaten – often raw. Drinking water from a pot in which clothes had been boiled surprised no one. After a while, incidents of cannibalism were recorded; the Germans were forced to eat parts of the bodies of their recently fallen comrades. There was no food for the wounded – only those who could stand received minimal amounts of food.
Slow Death of the 6th Army
To make matters worse, the temperature was already well below zero and frostbite was spreading among the people. Some of the Third Reich’s instructions on this matter sounded grotesque: one of them stated that in case of frostbite, one should find a still warm horse carcass and immerse their hands in its belly. Soviet bullets weren’t needed for death to spread among the Germans. People were dying often – from hunger, cold, stress, and exhaustion. Medications were running out, and in addition to many wounded brought from the front, doctors had to help Germans who mutilated themselves in the hope of getting a chance to return home. The longer the 6th Army’s agony lasted, the more wounded there were, and they were increasingly left to fend for themselves, as even water was running out. At the height of the siege, 40,000 wounded members of the Wehrmacht lay in the cellars of Stalingrad. The living ate the dead – soldiers desperately searched for even a tiny bit of fat on their fallen comrades, which (after removing the lice) could be eaten.
Meanwhile, the Red Army continued to renew its attacks, and the area controlled by the dying 6th Army was gradually shrinking. For the German soldiers, the only chance of survival began to be evacuation by one of the Luftwaffe’s planes, but only selected ones could return to Germany. Initially, all wounded received a ticket home, but later the command ordered the evacuation of only the lightly wounded, who could quickly return to the fight on another front. As the number of available airfields decreased due to the relentless Soviet offensive, the Wehrmacht also saved the most capable officers, so that they could command elsewhere in the near future.
The German army attempted to break through to the besieged men of General Paulus. Lieutenant General Hoth was ordered to create a rescue corridor for the 6th Army to the east of the Don. He was given his 4th Panzer Army, remnants of the 4th Romanian Army, and the 6th Panzer Division, freshly drawn from France. Initially, the attack went according to plan, and the first 50 km were covered in less than 3 days. After a five-day battle, Hoth also broke the Soviet resistance at Aksay, and it seemed that the impossible might come true – Paulus was already reported that his men were to meet the relief. However, the German offensive stalled when Lieutenant General Yeryomenko managed to hastily bring in the elite 2nd Guards Army. The end of December was approaching, and Hitler still did not consent to the attempted breakthrough of the 6th Army, which General Erich von Manstein insisted on. Most of the besieged had no illusions about the expected arrival of help; evidence of this were the letters written that never reached the soldiers’ loved ones (they were intercepted by the Soviets). These letters were dominated by the feeling of impending death and interestingly, doubt in Hitler, the Third Reich, and the cause for which they fought.
The Red Army encouraged the Germans to surrender in various ways. Leaflets were dropped on Wehrmacht positions, and mocking songs calling for surrender were played from speakers mounted on cars. However, despite this cunning psychological warfare, few Germans left their positions to surrender.
On January 10, the final Soviet assault on the Stalingrad positions held by the Germans began. In just two days, the Red Army managed to halve the area occupied by the Wehrmacht. The Germans no longer had the strength or capability to undertake any offensive actions and were dying quickly not only under a hail of bullets but also from cold and hunger. On January 21, Paulus asked Hitler for the possibility of surrender for his men – the request was rejected. The Führer wanted to sacrifice his 6th Army so that the rest of the forces on the Eastern Front had time to stabilize the defensive lines. However, he implemented a kind of Noah’s Ark project, evacuating one soldier from each division from Stalingrad at the last moment, and ordered the 6th Army to be recreated in the strength of 20 divisions. Of course, these were pipe dreams that the Wehrmacht no longer had the people and equipment for. On January 29, Hitler appointed Paulus a field marshal, so that he would commit suicide rather than surrender to the Soviets (however, the general surrendered). The farewell report from Paulus’s command headquarters was sent on the morning of January 31, as the Red Army was capturing the house serving as the Germans’ headquarters. The final battles lasted until the first days of February. Peace reigned in Stalingrad…
The beginning of the end
300,000 Germans began the conquest of Stalingrad, after 3 months of fighting and 2.5 months of cold and hunger, about 100,000 remained, and 25,000 were evacuated. The rest found their death there – from a Soviet bullet or the weather. Others were taken prisoner, and half of them did not survive the first weeks with the Soviets. 95% of ordinary soldiers and non-commissioned officers did not survive Stalingrad and the potential captivity after the battle. 50% of the officers fell in battle, or died afterwards. Meanwhile, 95% of the highest-ranking officers survived the battle and returned to their homeland. Only 6,000 people taken captive during the battle returned to Germany.
The defeat at Stalingrad proved to be the beginning of the end of World War II for Nazi Germany. The Third Reich fought for another 27 long and bloody months, waging a total war that it had started itself. And the rest is history…