As part of our series covering historic WW2 battles, this month we are looking at the turning point of the Second World War in Europe – The Battle of Stalingrad
By the late summer of 1942, Axis forces were deep into the Soviet heartland. For an entire year, Soviet forces had been driven back by the Axis onslaught. From Leningrad in the north to the Rostov on the banks of the Black Sea, the frontline stretched for over 2,000 km. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers had surrendered to Axis forces, which prompted Stalin’s infamous Order 227, “Not one step back!“. There was to be no unauthorised retreat, lest they face service in a penal battalion or execution.
The winter of 1941-42 was spent re-arming and preparing for the Summer campaigns to follow. Stalin had expected Axis attacks to be centred on Moscow but Hitler was focused on Stalingrad. The capture of Stalingrad would cut off Soviet forces in the Caucasus and hamper the Lend-Lease supplies flooding through the Persian corridor. It would also be an enormous propaganda victory and with Stalingrad carrying the name of Stalin, he could not let his city fall to the Nazis. The advance on Stalingrad was to coincide with attacks towards the Baku oilfields. Hitler rewrote plans to prioritise Stalingrad above all else, it became a personal endeavour of his. All of these factors meant that the Battle of Stalingrad was to be crucial and thus became a major turning point in the Second World War.
With ample warning of the coming attack, the Soviets started evacuating Stalingrad of it’s grain, cattle and rail cars. Most citizens were not evacuated before the Germans reached the city however. The Soviets suffered over 200,000 casualties in hastily organised defences on the approach to the city. At one point all that stood between the German 6th Army and Stalingrad were the women of the 1077th Anti-Aircraft Regiment, who fought fiercely against advancing panzers. Combat inside the city was close and brutal. The German army was robbed of it’s mobility which had helped it in prior campaigns. The Luftwaffe had bombed the city largely to rubble by this point so vehicles struggled to navigate the streets.
The only way for the Soviets to supply their forces was by crossing the River Volga. A task made difficult by the constant Luftwaffe raids and the river partially freezing during the winter months, which halted boat expeditions. The logistical situation was dire for the Axis too. Constant partisan raids and sabotage on their supply lines, which now stretched for thousands of miles, meant that new equipment was hard to come by. Factories that were unable to evacuate their machinery before the battle, continued to manufacture weapons of war. Before the Stalingrad Tractor Factory was overrun, T-34 tanks rolled off the production lines straight into battle. The Soviet Union was the only nation to maintain a sniper school in the inter-war years and the ruins of Stalingrad was a perfect battlefield for these precision killers. The most famous of the Soviet snipers was Vasily Zaytsev. The success of Soviet snipers prompted the Germans to re-establish their sniper school.
Recognising that the Germans were spread thin and ill prepared for the oncoming Winter. The Soviet high command started to plan a series of offensives that would save Stalingrad. Axis intelligence were unable to notice the build up of Soviet forces around Stalingrad. This granted the Soviets the element of surprise to launch their pincer manoeuvre. On the 19th of November they smashed through the surrounding Italian, Hungarian and Romanian armies. They were poorly equipped to defend the flanks of the German 6th Army and crumbled in the face of Soviet artillery and armour. By the 23rd, Soviet forces had linked up and the remaining Axis forces were surrounded inside Stalingrad. Nearly 300,000 Axis soldiers were trapped in the Stalingrad pocket.
Reinforcements attempted to relieve the trapped forces, but were unable to breakthrough the Soviet lines. The Luftwaffe believed that they could keep the trapped 6th Army supplied, however, they were able to deliver barely 10% of the desperately needed supplies. 35,000 specialists and wounded were evacuated from the pocket. On the 7th of January the Soviet General, Konstantin Rokossovsky, called a cease fire and offered generous terms to the Axis commander, Friedrich Paulus. Rokossovsky advised Paulus that he was in an impossible situation. However Hitler refused the request to surrender and the siege continued.
On the 25th of January the Soviets overran the last emergency airfield. An offer to surrender was offered again. And again Paulus’ request to accept was refused by Hitler. Paulus pleaded with Hitler. 18,000 men needed immediate medical attention. Food and ammunition supplies were exhausted. Hitler ordered Paulus to defend Stalingrad to the death and set about promoting most of his staff. Paulus was promoted to Generalfeldmarschall. Hitler stressed that there was no record of a German Generalfeldmarschall ever surrendering. The implication was that Hitler expected Paulus to commit suicide.
Defying Hitler’s wishes, Paulus surrendered. 90,000 sick, wounded and starving Axis soldiers were taken prisoner. Less than 5,000 would ever see their homes again.
The Battle of Stalingrad is one of the bloodiest battle in human history. Over a million dead and another million wounded or taken prisoner. The Axis advance into Russia was broken, and so began 2 years of Soviet offensives culminating in the fall of the German Reich.