Of all the great battles on the eastern front in the Second World War, Stalingrad was the most terrible, and on 31 January 1943, it started to reach its bloody end.
A five-month struggle from street to street and house to house that was deemed “the rat war” by the German soldiers, it lives long in the popular imagination as the ultimate battle of endurance between two immense armies.
And its effects went way beyond the destruction of the German Sixth Army, with most historians agreeing that its capitulation marked the turning point of the war.
Though it was true that the Nazi invasion of Russia had met with a setback outside Moscow in the winter of 1941, Hitler‘s forces could still be fairly confident of overall victory when they approached the southern city of Stalingrad in August 1942.
The British had suffered defeat in North Africa and the far east, and Stalin’s armies were still very much on the defensive as the Germans and their allies drove ever deeper into their vast country.
Stalin, observing their progress from Moscow, ordered food and supplies to be evacuated from the city which bore his name, but the majority of its civilians remained behind. He wanted the city, which was a gateway to the great oil fields of the Caucasus, to be defended at all costs.
In a characteristic move, the Soviet leader had decided that their presence would embolden his men to fight for the city, something which outweighed the inevitable human cost of leaving them behind while the Luftwaffe was winning the war in the sky.
The bombing of the city which preceded the 6th Army’s assault was more destructive than the Blitz in London, and made most of the city uninhabitable. The battles before the city gave the Germans a taste of what was to come as the Soviet Armies resisted strongly, but by mid-September the street fighting had begun.
Intriguingly, much of the early resistance came from women’s units who manned (or perhaps womanned) the city’s anti-aircraft guns. The role of women in the fighting would grow throughout the battle. The most vicious fighting took place in the unflattened parts of the city as Red Army soldiers defended building after building and room after room.
A dour joke amongst the Axis soldiers was that it was no good capturing the kitchen of a house, for there would be another platoon hiding in the cellar, and some important landmarks, such as the main train station, changed hands over a dozen times.
Despite this fierce resistance, the attackers made steady inroads into the city, helped by aerial support, and reached their high water mark in November, when they had control of 90 percent of urban Stalingrad. The Soviet Marshal Zhukov, however, had a bold plan for a counterattack.
The troops at the spearhead of the General von Paulus’ attack were mainly German, but their flanks were guarded by Germany’s allies, Italy, Hungary and Romania. These men were less experienced and more poorly equipped than the Wehrmacht troops, and Zhukov was aware of this.
In his earlier career fighting the Japanese he had perfected the audacious tactic of a double envelopment which would completely cut off the bulk of the enemy troops without engaging their best men at all, and with the weakness on the German flank this plan, codenamed Operation Uranus, stood a chance of succeeding.
Zhukov’s positioned his reserves to the south and north of the city and reinforced them heavily with tanks before launching lightning attacks on the Romanian and Italian armies, which crumbled quickly despite fighting bravely.
By the end of November, in a breathtaking reversal of fortunes, the Germans in the city were completely surrounded with their supplies cut off and facing a dilemma. The men on the ground, including the commander, General von Paulus, wanted to break out of the encirclement and regroup to fight again.
Hitler, however, refused to allow them to do so, arguing that it would look like a capitulation, and that it was possible to supply an army entirely by air.
Unsurprisingly, this did not work. The 270,000 men trapped in the centre needed 700 tonnes of supplies a day, a figure beyond the capabilities of 1940s aircraft, which were still under serious threat from Russian planes and anti-aircraft guns on the ground.
By December supplies food and ammunition were running out, and the terrible Russian winter had arrived. With no access to these basic necessities or even winter clothing, the German push into the city ground to a halt and from their point of view the battle became a question of survival rather than conquest.
Von Paulus was hassled by his men to do something and became so stressed that he developed a lifelong facial tic, but felt that he was unable to directly disobey Hitler. In January Stalingrad’s airfields changed hands and all access to supplies was lost for the Germans, who were now defending the city’s streets in another role-reversal.
By this stage they had very few tanks left, and their situation was desperate as Soviet victories elsewhere removed all prospect of relief. On 22 January they were offered surprisingly generous terms of capitulation, and Paulus once again contacted Hitler requesting his permission to surrender.
The bitter end
He was refused, and Hitler promoted him to Field Marshal instead. The message was clear – no German Field Marshal had ever surrendered an army. As a result, the fighting continued until it was impossible for the Germans to resist any longer, and on 31 January their southern pocket finally collapsed.
Paulus and his subordinates, resigned to their fates, then surrendered.
Astonishingly, some Germans continued to resist until March, but the battle ended as any sort of contest on 31 January 1943. It was Germany’s first truly major defeat of the war, with an entire army destroyed and a huge propaganda boost for Stalin’s Empire and the Allies.
Combined with the smaller-scale British victory at El Alamein in October 1942, Stalingrad started the shift of momentum that would put the Germans on the defensive for the entire remainder of the war.
It is rightly remembered today as one of the Soviet Union’s finest victories, and as one of history’s most terrible struggles, with well over a million casualties inflicted during the fighting.