February 2, 1943. Red Army troops trudge in through snow and rubble to accept the surrender of General Strecker, the commander of the last German forces holding out in the northern ruins of Stalingrad. The decisive battle of World War II in Europe is over.
91,000 Axis soldiers were remaining in Stalingrad when they finally laid down their arms. Most were German, but 2,000 Romanian troops remained, the remnants of three divisions. Among the surrendered were 21 generals and one Field Marshal - Friedrich von Paulus, the commander of the German 6th Army. Hitler had, by radio, made Paulus a Field Marshal the day beforehand, noting that "A German Field Marshal has never surrendered" - an oblique reminder to the trapped Paulus to do his duty or go out fighting. Paulus, instead, chose surrender.
Stalingrad. Something about that name conjures up images in the minds of casual history fans; urban fighting, snow, snipers and fire and boats on the Volga. Sadly, much of what your average person knows about the Battle of Stalingrad comes from the truly dismal film "Enemy at the Gates," a sordid love triangle disguised as a war movie. You could accurately call it the "Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor" of the Eastern Front: a banal and inaccurate depiction of a truly harrowing event.
Stalingrad, though, was the decisive battle of World War II in Europe. It was by no means the end for Germany. There were almost three more years of hard fighting for the Soviet Union before they would wave their flag in Berlin, and it had no immediate impact on the course of the war to the Americans or British. The casualties that the Germans suffered at Stalingrad were staggering - almost 400,000 total, including the prisoners - but not crippling. The German Army was larger in 1943 than in 1942. Finally, the Soviet attempt to exploit the victory at Stalingrad was turned back at Kharkov later in February; Stalin could not turn Stalingrad into the war-ending victory because the German military remained a strong and dangerous opponent.
1942 was the German military's death ride, even if they didn't know it at the time. The Germans had lost too many experienced men - NCOs and officers - to carry out the same sort of attacks they had launched against Poland, France, and the Soviets. They had suffered huge losses in equipment and fuel. When 1942 began, the Germans couldn't attack everywhere; they could only attack on one sector, southern Russia, and even those units were short of equipment, using old tanks and broken trucks. Streaking hundreds of miles into the depths of Russia, the Germans outran their supply lines and failed to destroy the Soviet forces in their path before they could escape. With vast leagues of territory behind them, the Germans ran into determined defenses in the rubble of Stalingrad, the mountains of the Caucasus, and the riverbanks of the Volga.
The Germans were already running short of manpower by 1942. When they pushed into southern Russia and the Caucasus, they quickly ran out of soldiers to man the long supply lines and extended frontlines they now had to defend. They had to call on their Axis allies - Romania, Hungary, and Italy - to provide troops to man the expanding perimeter. These poorly armed, trained, disciplined, motivated and led forces were asked to man the flanks as the Nazis poured more and more experienced Germans into Stalingrad. They never stood a chance when the Soviet tanks and artillery descended on them, streaking across the barren white wastes and snapping the encirclement shut around Stalingrad and all the German troops within it.
Stalingrad was the turning point. Up to this battle, the Soviets had seen many of their armies wiped out or their attacks cut off and destroyed; this was the first time they had paid the Germans back in kind. Stalingrad was also the last time the Germans would launch a major offensive of this kind, the last time a Blitzkrieg would come close to its goals. The limits of the German method of warfare were now clear to everyone. The next time the Germans would try their Blitzkrieg tactics, at Kursk in 1943, they wouldn't gain hundreds of miles before being halted. They would barely gain twenty. The Red Army had found the antidote to Blitzkrieg - defense in depth.
Before Stalingrad, the Nazis had been harsh schoolmasters to the Soviets, and the Soviets had learned. They survived the Blitzkrieg, which no one else had ever done, which gave them the chance to learn from it. After Stalingrad and Kursk, it would be the Soviet turn to take the Germans to school, and their yardstick was called Deep Operations.
The immense carnage of Stalingrad - almost a million dead, all told - was not the beginning of the end. It was, however, the end of the beginning.
For a good look at Stalingrad from a readable perspective, check out Antony Beevor's award-winning Stalingrad (New York: Viking, 1998), which comes highly recommended.