Vasily Zaytsev is a legendary Russian sniper and war hero, who fought at the Battle of Stalingrad. The Battle of Stalingrad was one of the decisive battles on the eastern front, and the capture of the German 6th Army at Stalingrad signalled the beginning of the end for the Nazis.
The German and Russian armies both sustained extremely heavy casualties over six months of fighting, and the German army never fully recovered from the battle of Stalingrad.
Vasily Zaytsev was born in Yeleninskoye to a peasant family, and grew up in the Ural Mountains. He learned to shoot with his grandfather and older brother whilst hunting deer and wolves.
Aged 12, he brought home a wolf he shot with his single-shot Berdan, which he was barely able to carry on his back.
He volunteered at the beginning of World War Two to be transferred to the frontline, and he was ultimately assigned to the 1047th Rifle Regiment of the 284th “Tomsk” Rifle Division which became part of the 62nd Army at Stalingrad on 17 September 1942.
He quickly established a name for himself, shooting a Nazi officer at a distance of 800m with a Mosin-Nagant rifle. Two other Nazi soldiers appeared, checking their fallen officer.
He fired two more shots, hitting and killing both of them. For this he was rewarded with a sniper rifle, and Zaytsev killed 40 soldiers in his first 10 days in Stalingrad.
Zaytsev pioneered his and the Soviet Union’s sniper tactics. He would develop tactics used by Simo Häyhä in the Russo-Finnish war, hiding in whatever territory was available, whether that be deep snow, under rubble or in water pipes.
He was given a cadre of snipers to train and mould in his own image, and would supposedly force them to sit motionless in abandoned warehouses and watch German soldiers through their scopes to learn the way they moved.
While these stories are part of Zaytsev’s legend and are likely apocryphal, he did pioneer real tactical innovations in the field of sniping.
He would often cover a large area with three teams, each consisting of a sniper and a scout. This tactic is known as “sixes”, and the Russian army still deploys it to this day. It was used in the Russian war against Chechnya.
Between 10 November 1942 and 17 December 1942, he killed 225 enemy soldiers, including 11 snipers.
The infamous sniper duel
Zaytsev was immortalised in the 2001 war film Enemy at the Gates, which told the story of this battle through Zaytsev’s eyes. The film culminates in a climatic sniper battle between Zaytsev and Major Erwin König, a German sniper, and the director of a Wehrmacht sniper school.
This battle is firmly entrenched in Soviet folklore, despite a lack of evidence that Major Erwin König actually existed.
The Armed Forces Museum of Moscow claims to be in possession of König’s telescopic sight, and Zaytsev indicates in his memoirs that a three-day sniper duel did occur, and that the sniper he killed was the head of a sniper school near Berlin.
The matter remains open to debate, but Antony Beevor claims from research in the Russian ministry of defence archives it was clear that:
“the whole story of the sniper duel – portrayed by Jude Law and Ed Harris – [was] a clever figment of Soviet propaganda.”
He was injured by a mortar attack in January 1943 and was interned in a military hospital. He would not serve again until after the battle of Stalingrad was over.
In February, Zaytsev was awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union. He returned to the front line imminently before the end of the war, and fought at the Battle of the Seelow Heights in Germany.
After the war
Zaytsev survived the war and only died in December 1991 aged 76. One of his final requests was to be buried at Stalingrad, now known as Volgograd.
He was initially buried in Kiev, where he remained for 14 years. However, in early 2006, his final wish was honoured, and he was re-buried in Mamayev Hill with full military honours, a memorial complex that overlooks Volgograd.
Zaytsev’s legacy fits almost too neatly with an idealised form of Soviet patriotism, implying that the Soviets might have moulded his life story for propaganda purposes.
One of his most famous lines is eerily redolent of Stalin’s Order No. 227, which ordered that no soldier could retreat without a direct order. Zaytsev’s wrote once that:
“…for us, there was no land beyond the Volga.”
Over a million Russian soldiers would perish to make that mantra come true.
Header image credit: Russian soldiers at the Battle of Stalingrad. Commons.