Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Battle of Stalingrad

The Battle of Stalingrad was the single bloodiest battle in recorded human history, and it was also a defining turning point in the Great Patriotic War. The Soviet victory at Stalingrad marked the end of the Nazi German conquest of Russia and the beginning of the Red Army's advance to Berlin. As Winston Churchill put it so eloquently in a speech to the House of Commons, Stalingrad marked not "..the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning."

Following the Wermacht's inability to capture Moscow in 1941 or starve Leningrad into submission, Hitler and the High Command decided to start a fresh offensive in the spring of 1942 to penetrate deep into southern Russia, capture the Caucausus, cross the Volga River and overrun the vital oil fields of central Asia. They believed, perhaps rightly so, that the conquest of southern Russia would inflict a massive strategic blow onto the stubborn Soviet war effort, which it would never be able to recover from. In addition it would allow German armies to flank Moscow from the south and east, and also to drive into the middle-east and capture the vital Allied oil supplies there.

By January 1942 the front lines ran from Leningrad in the north to Rostov-on-Don in the south, and after the fierce Battle of Moscow the Wermacht had reorganized and rested it's troops over the winter months.
Army Group South, which had conquered the Ukraine the previous summer, was given the task of achieving the bold aims, which was named "Operation Case Blue".

Army Group South was split into two groups, with Army Group South A, under the command of General Wilhelm List, tasked with penetrating south and capturing the Caucausus region and Army Group South B, under the command of Field Marshall Feodor Von Bock driving east and capturing the Volga region to protect the flank of the Caucausus offensive.

Case Blue couldn't start on time, however, as several pockets of Soviet resistance, notably at Sevastopol on the Crimea, which had been under seige since the previous July, required additional troops and supplies to capture. Case Blue finally got underway in June 1942.

The new summer offensive began exceptionally well for the Germans, with disorganized and badly-led Soviet forces offering little real resistance. There was no single Soviet theatre commander in the region and conflicting orders from different generals sent Soviet units scuttling back and forth in confusion across the German line of advance, to suddenly be pounced on by Stuka dive bombers and then overrun by fast moving and professional panzer divisions.

By July the Soviets had managed to piece together a few strong units and two counter-offensives were launched: one near Rostov and one in the open steppes to the east of Rostov. Like the summer before, the fast-moving German panzers were able to completely surround and destroy these two Soviet armies thrown into the battle.

In late July the General List crossed the Don River and Von Bock followed up with a dash to the Volga River and the strategically placed city of Stalingrad, on the west back of the Volga. Allied Hungarian, Romanian and Italian armies were posted to the north of the advance to protect the flanks, a displacement that would have serious consequences a few months later.

As List encountered stiffening resistance in his Caucausus campaign, Hitler ordered that General Hoth's 4th Panzer Army, originally tasked with capturing Stalingrad and driving across the Volga, turn south to help out Army Group South A. This left the German 6th Army, under General Freidrich Paulus, the task of capturing Stalingrad. Reserve artillery and panzers were rushed to the front to reinforce the 6th Army, and in the process much of the Army's logistical supplies were left far behind at the Don River crossing, another serious factor that would have dire consequences in the near future.

As German intentions became clear, Stalin met with his supreme commanders and finally organized the southern defences into two "fronts" (army groups), placing the Stalingrad front in charge of Marshall Yeryomenko and future Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev. Wandering and leaderless Soviet units were gathered up and organized into the 62nd Rifle Army, tasked with defending Stalingrad.

Stalingrad itself was never supposed to be a major focus of Case Blue. It was important as it offered a base for Soviet counterattacks on the German's flank, and because it offered a convenient crossing point of the lower Volga River. The city occupies a long but thin strip of land along the Volga. To the north of the city were three massive factories: the Red October, the Tractor Factory and the Barricades. The south of the city was mostly residential while the center was occupied by government administrative departments as well as a department store, overlooked by a low hill named "Mamyev Kurgan".

As German intelligence reported the movement of Soviet divisions to Stalingrad the city took on new importance. Paulus was urged to capture the city quickly and to get across the Volga before Soviet defences could be organized.

The battle for the city began with a massive German air raid. 900 Luftwaffe bombers of all types streamed over the city for four hours on August 23rd. A firestorm was started in the city center and near the industrial sector in the north of the city, and it is estimated that over 40,000 civilians were killed.

Paulus' 6th Army managed to capture the banks of the Volga to the north and south of the city, and effectively put Stalingrad under seige. He then began to move his reserve panzers into the suburbs.

His advance was met with fierce and determined opposition. While Soviet forces were still unable to beat the Germans in the open fields, they had mastered the bloody art of city fighting. German tanks became sitting targets in the narrow streets and parks of the city, and the infantry was forced to fight house-to-house, room-to-room. As the 6th Army pushed into the city, the front lines became streets and hallways.

Paulus was forced to capture the three factory complexes in the north, where significant Soviet forces were holed up. The Red October fell in September after brutal fighting, but the Tractor Factory and the Barricades held out. Fighting inside the factories happened around machinery and walkways and administrative offices. The simpler weapons of bayonets and grenades were used instead of tanks, artillery and aircraft, and the German soldier had not be thoroughly trained for this type of close combat. Instead, the Soviet infantryman held the upper hand, and casualties inside the factories were horrendous.

In the south the Germans managed to take most of the residential areas at great cost in men and materials, and in the center German forces advanced all the way to Mamyev Kurgan and the department store complex, capturing both by the end of September but being thrown out of both by determined Soviet counterattacks. The top of Mamyev Kurgan gave whoever occupied it a view of the entire battlefield, hence it's strategic importance, while the Department Store controlled the flow of supplies to the hill. Both locations changed hands repeatedly during the battle.

The sewers under the city also became a strange, subterranean battlefield. Machine gun nests and sporadic infantry firefights broke out as both sides attempted to get under the other, and soon thousands of rotting corpses were floating around with human waste and garbage in what German soldiers started calling the Rattenkreig, the War of the Rats.

By early October Paulus controlled nearly two-thirds of Stalingrad but the Soviets still held the Tractor Factory and the all-important center of the city, where reinforcements and supplies were ferried across from the east bank. One apartment building near the Department Store frustrated German attempts to get onto the Soviet flank. The defenders inside were commanded by a man named Sergeant Pavlov, and despite repeated attacks by tanks and infantry, the Germans could not dislodge the Russians. This came to be known as "Pavlov's House" and the ruined building is still in the city today as a testament.

The center of the city was in range of both sides' artillery, the view of the city from a distance made it resemble a boiling, blazing place with constant explosions and geysers of dirt and rubble erupting into the air. Both Russian and German troops nicknamed the city "the Cauldron".

Another area where the Soviets were able to excel during the Battle of Stalingrad was in the efficient use of snipers. Master Sergeant Vasily Zaitsev was popularized during the battle and after, but there were nearly 1,000 expert Russian snipers ranging around the battlefield. They were placed under their own command and allowed to hunt Germans wherever they wanted. Officers and artillery spotters were their favourite targets, but opposing German snipers were the most prestigious prey. Amidst the ferocious battle for the city a sub-battle of snipers stalking each other through the rubble was raging.

By late October List's offensive in the Caucausus had petered out, as all the grand objectives depended on Paulus taking Stalingrad and crossing the Volga. Soviet defences in the city were getting stronger, however, and more and more German supplies and reinforcements had to be trucked across the steppes from Rostov to keep the pressure on. What the German High Command failed to foresee, and what German intelligence failed to notice, however, was the massive Soviet build-up happening on the east bank of the river.

Once again Stalin called in Marshall Zhukov, defender of Leningrad and hero of Moscow, to rescue the situation at Stalingrad. Zhukov, a man of energy and daring and conviction, decided that he would not only push the Germans back from Stalingrad, he would annihilate the entire 6th Army and punch a massive whole in the 2000 km-long German line. From every theatre of operations, units were stripped to half-strength and sent to positions to the north and south of Stalingrad. A truly Soviet army was created, with divisions from every Soviet republic streaming in. Factories all over the country were producing weapons and tanks at maximum capacity and these were all sent to the Stalingrad front.

By early November Zhukov had assembled nearly 1 million troops and 7,000 tanks, as well as over 4,000 pieces of artillery of all different types and calibres. His plan was to attack to the north of Stalingrad, defended by the weak and demorilized Italian, Hungarian and Romanian troops, and to the south of Stalingrad, which was not sufficiently defended to hold back such a massive force. The two attacking forces would loop around to the west of Stalingrad and link up near the Don River crossing where, unbeknownst to Zhukov, most of the 6th Army's supplies were based. With the 6th Army trapped at Stalingrad he would then squeeze the pocket closed and destroy it completely.

On November 19th a massive blizzard swept across the steppes and Zhukov unleashed "Operation Uranus" in the north. Following one of the largest artillery bombardments in history, 2 Soviet armies crashed into the dazed and battered Romanian and Italian armies, which simply vanished beneath the onslaught. Over 100,000 Italians "disappeared" in the battle and nearly as many Romanians. The Hungarians, situated a little further west, turned tail and retreated.

Two days later the southern attack commenced and again the Soviets crossed the Volga and completely destroyed the defenders. Two gigantic Soviet pincers now raced west and south for the Don River, with Stalingrad at it's center. They overran the 6th Army supply depots and linked up with each other at the town of Kalach, completely encircling the 6th Army. The progress of the battle had turned completely upside down, with the aggressor suddenly becoming the defender.

Soviet forces then began a slow and methodical advance outwards and inwards, squeezing the 6th Army into a tight pocket while increasing the distance it would have to travel if it were to break out. In the event the Soviet plan worked, for Hoth's 4th Panzer Army, which had been turned south in the late summer, was sent racing to Stalingrad to rescue Paulus.

Hoth's experienced army smashed into the Soviet army and attempted to drive through to Stalingrad, but the Soviets held their ground and after two weeks of heavy fighting Hoth was forced to retreat.

The news of Hoth's retreat hit the German soldiers inside the Stalingrad pocket hard. Moral started to sink and as the winter became worse more and more German soldiers were surrendering to Soviet soldiers. Nevertheless, most German units were determined to hold out, extolled by Radio Berlin to "fight to the last man".

For German soldiers inside the pocket this wasn't such an easy task to accomplish. Within a week of the Soviet encirclement food and ammunition started to run out, and officers were forced to ration their soldiers to 12 bullets a day for riflemen and 200 for machinegunners. Tanks ran out of fuel and artillery used up all their shells and became useless. Fighting in the city was still raging, and soldiers with no food or ammunition and lacking proper winter clothing were unable to fight for long. By December the Soviets had pushed the Germans off Mamyev Kurgan for the last time and Soviet artillery was able to range across the entire battlefield without any response from the Germans. Paulus holed himself up in the basement of the Department Store.

In Berlin the High Command panicked, but Hermann Goering, chief of the Luftwaffe (Air Force) reassured Hitler that his planes could keep the 6th Army supplied by air. In the event, the 6th Army required more than 300 tons of food and supplies a day, but the Luftwaffe was only able to bring in 20 tons a day, and only in good weather. In addition, when the German planes were flying, they were being met by the latest model Soviet fighters determined to shoot them down. For the first time in the war the Germans no longer had complete air superiority over a Russian battlefield. After devestating losses to Luftwaffe aircraft, which German industry couldn't replace, Hitler ordered a stop to the attempted airlift. Instead he promoted General Paulus to the rank of Field Marshall because, as Hitler said, "No German Field Marshall has ever surrendered."

The day after Paulus' promotion, on February 2nd 1943, with his army in tatters and starving in frozen cellars, Paulus surrendered what was left of his once-powerful 6th Army to Marshall Zhukov.

Field Marshall Paulus surrenders at Stalingrad

German prisoner

The Soviets took over 500,000 prisoners, few of whom ever saw their homes again (the last Stalingrad POWs were repatriated in then there were less than 3,000 of them alive). The victory had created a 400-mile wide salient in the German lines which would lead to the Battle of Kursk in the summer. An entire German army had, for the first time, been completely destroyed. Germany would advance no further into Russia and, after the battle of Kursk later in the same year, would spend the rest of the war on the defensive.

Stalingrad marked a turning point not just in Russia's war but also in the overall war effort raging across the globe. The middle-east oil fields had been saved and the bulk of Germany's war machine was now devoted to the Russian front. Stalingrad also marks a moment in human history when savagery was welded together with modern industrial technology to created a bloodbath that has never been seen before or since. Nearly 1.2 million people lost their lives in the ruthless 6-month long battle for control of the city and the detritus of war still litters the fields surrounding modern-day Volgograd (renamed when Kruschev came to power in 1955). The rubble of Stalingrad has been recycled to build a fantastic memorial on Mamyev Kurgan, a hill which was terraformed by the constant artillery and fighting and a symbol of the struggle against fascism and of one of the most strategic victories in modern history.

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