July 1942 - Feb 1943: Stalingrad

During the Battle of Stalingrad, 17 July 1942 to 2 February 1943, the Germans and Russians lost over 1 million men fighting over the rubble of the already destroyed city. The city was known as Tsaritsyn until it was renamed Stalingrad in 1925. In 1951, it took on its present-day name of Volgograd.

Red Army soldiers man defenses in the rubble of Stalingrad, 1942.  Photo: Hassadar
Red Army soldiers man defenses in the rubble of Stalingrad, 1942. Photo: Hassadar.

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Events Leading to the Battle of Stalingrad

The German Operation Barbarossa failed to take Moscow and ground to a halt as the terrible Russian winter took hold in December 1941. A massive counteroffensive began on 6 December, as Marshal Georgi Zhukov hurled his forces at the frozen Germans, opening gaps in their lines, pushing them back as much as 175 miles (280 km) west by the end of December, eliminating the immediate threat to Moscow. The Russian counteroffensive continued into the spring of 1942, ending the German drive with a stalemate.

Early in 1942, the Wehrmacht was still holding a huge territory inside the Soviet Union. In May, the Germans resumed their attack and captured Sevastopol after an eight month siege. In June 1942, under Operation Blau, German forces roared eastward across southern Russia to the banks of the Volga River at Stalingrad and toward the oil-rich Caucasus region. Once again, in the summer of 1942, Blitzkrieg enjoyed initial success and on 27 July Rostov was captured. The force was then split: one branch went against Sevastopol on the Black Sea, capturing the port on 4 July 1942. The second branch moved toward Stalingrad, an important industrial center on the Volga River.

The Attack on Stalingrad

Stalingrad was attacked by the German Sixth Army, the same Army that swept across Belgium and Holland in 1940, 330,000 seasoned soldiers commanded by Gen. Friedrich Paulus. In the first phase, from 17 July 1942 to 22 August, the Luftwaffe bombed the city and Soviet shipping on the Volga River. On 22 August 1942, a tremendous bombardment leveled most of the remaining city buildings. With the city in ruins, German 6th Army launched a tank and infantry assault that destroyed everything left standing.

As in Leningrad and elsewhere, the Russians did not surrender. A block by block orgy of hand to hand combat ensued, one of the first urban combat scenarios in modern warfare. German tanks were almost useless because the rubble made streets impassible. Bayonets and knives were employed as much as bullets. A far cry from Blitzkrieg, German forces would crawl forward a few yards in hours of combat, only to be pushed back in the next hours. Thousands died daily in the slaughter, dead who were never counted. The once-proud Wehrmacht was ground down by the relentless, guerilla-style attacks and suicidal defensive tactics of the Russians.

The German commanders begged Hitler for permission to withdraw and regroup. Hitler refused, shouting, "I am not leaving the Volga!" On 19 November 1942, the Russians under Zhukov launched twin counterattacks (Operation Uranus) from the north and northeast, in a few days closing a ring around the Sixth Army, trapping the Germans just as winter descended with full force. All supply lines were cut and Wehrmacht attempts to relieve the city failed. Hitler made insane announcements from afar, declaring Stalingrad a "Fortress City". Hermann Goering claimed that the Luftwaffe would supply 750 tons of airlifted supplies each day, but few supply planes could deliver. The Russians tightened the noose day by day inflicting tremendous losses on the trapped Germans. German troops were reduced to eating horses and stray animals while defending themselves with little ammunition. German attempts to relieve the city, such as Field Marshal von Manstein's attack on 12 December, were throuwn back by the Soviets.

Finally General Paulus, defying Hitler, surrendered the remnants of his spent force, a mere 12,000 survivors, on 31 January 1943. On 2 February 1943, the remainder of the Sixth Army capitulated.

Evaluation of the Battle of Stalingrad

Stalingrad was the most devestating defeat of the German Army in World War II, the end of any pretention of potential success on the Eastern Front. Major operational and strategic changes followed as the Soviets gained the time to mobilize and the Germans lost one of their most effective combat units. The destruction of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad meant German strategy in the east had to be completely revised. Hitler raged at his General Staff and forced changes that estranged him from the military leadership.

After Stalingrad in early 1943, the general direction of the war on the Eastern Front turned decisively in favor of the Red Army. The change became irreversible after the Battle of Kursk, the following July.

Recommended Books about Stalingrad in World War II

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