September 27, 1942. With eleven divisions abreast, the German 6th Army launches its second massive assault on the beleaguered city of Stalingrad. The first month’s fighting has been catastrophic. The second will be worse. The six month-long house-to-house battle will consume almost a million men on either side, but the most famous city battle in world history will ultimately turn the tide of World War II.
Stalingrad is, of course, the most famous battle of the German-Soviet War, depicted in movies and video games and literature to the point that a casual observer might reduce the entire Eastern Front to this one major conflict. The city fighting in Stalingrad, in fact, was only one phase of a long and massive campaign that stretched over almost 700 miles, from the peaks of the Caucasus (nearly in the Middle East) to the wastes of central Russia. That Stalingrad was the epicenter of this colossal year of total war was not foreordained, or even planned. It can be reduced to German lack of vision – especially that of Hitler – and the foresight of the Soviet generals who saw a great opportunity. Stalingrad may symbolize the war to the greater public, but it also symbolizes how Germany lost World War II.
There are some historians who claim that Germany had already lost the war in 1941, when they failed to knock out the Soviet Union in the single massive blow of Operation Barbarossa. (I’ve got a discussion on that coming up in December.) But the events of early 1942 had given the Germans reasons for hope, as the Wehrmacht first regained its footing in the face of premature Soviet counterattacks, then launched several successful operations to clear the Crimea and the Ukraine. By mid-1942, Hitler and his generals had decided on a new strategy. Codenamed “Operation Blue”, it would be a major offensive to strike south into the steppes of southern Russia, with the goal of seizing the major oil fields in the Caucasus countries of Georgia and Azerbaijan. Stalingrad, while mentioned, was not even a major objective.
This plan was optimistic at best, and a clear sign that Germany’s cutting edge had been significantly dulled. First off, the Germans had launched simultaneous attacks along their entire frontline when the war began in June 1941; in June 1942, they were stripping their other fronts to launch an attack only in the south – a significant downgrade. The end of 1941 had found the Wehrmacht holding an unsustainable 1700 miles of front from the Arctic Ocean to the Black Sea. While many historians note that Germany was scraping the manpower barrel in 1944 and 1945, there were already signs of this in 1942, when the 18-year-old conscript class was called up early to fill the depleted ranks of the German divisions. Another sign of the ongoing manpower crisis was that, of the 41 divisions arriving for Operation Blue, fully 21 of them would be Axis allies – Romanians, Hungarians, and Italians, all ill-equipped for a major struggle on the Eastern Front.
The Germans themselves weren’t much better-equipped. By 1942, there were really two Wehrmachts: a high-powered strike force built around the elite Panzer Divisions, and a low-grade infantry army good for little besides static defense. The last three years of war had basically cored out the original rank and file of the German Army, leaving hollow shells of divisions manning the long front line. It was a bad sign when these divisions had to be robbed of their trucks, artillery, and horses to bring the units for Operation Blue up to strength, and even this wasn’t enough: the 1st Panzer Army entered operations in June 1942 at only 40 percent of its allotted strength. It was an ominous sign that on the verge of its confrontation with a rapidly modernizing and mechanizing Red Army, the infantry battalions were in the process of taking their reconnaissance battalion’s trucks and replacing them with bicycles.
What about the Soviets, though? The Red Army was still trying to rebuild after its disastrous losses of 1941, and still had lots of issues to work out. Its troops were fiercely committed, its equipment was good, and its will to fight was strong, but the problems of communications, control and organization were still an issue. The Red Army was a less flexible and rapid force than the German Wehrmacht, with far less tactical skill and fieldcraft. Most of its junior commanders were deathly afraid of the Germans after the onslaught of 1941.
When the Germans finally launched Operation Blue on June 28, 1942, at first things seemed to go according to plan. The panzer spearheads fanned out across the great Soviet steppes, the infantry slugged forward, airstrikes pounded the Red Army’s positions, and the Soviets seemed to collapse. But unlike in 1941, the Wehrmacht did not encircle massive Soviet armies or take hundreds of thousands of prisoners. Instead, the Soviet forces gave ground, withdrawing in fighting retreats before being surrounded. The Wehrmacht’s blows landed on thin air, turning what was supposed to be a sweeping triumph into just more miles they marched into the interior.
Already the plan was falling apart, and interference from higher headquarters – especially Hitler himself – made it worse. The German high command sent out confusing and contradictory orders, and when generals protested, they were relieved. Hitler had already fired the top German general only days into the operation, and obsessed himself in micromanagement and minutiae at his headquarters hundreds of miles away. By the end of July, despite the gaining of massive amounts of ground, the Germans were under heavy counterattack by Soviet forces. Hitler’s command meddling continued unabated, and this caused a dramatic and consequential change of objectives.
The planning for Operation Blue had always assumed that the German 6th Army would take up a blocking position on the Volga River near Stalingrad – only a secondary operation – while the main German attack headed for the Caucasus and the vital oil fields. This was also necessary since German logistics were already stretched to their breaking point with the massive distances being covered. In late July, though, Hitler suddenly changed the plan, dividing the German force into two new armies that would advance simultaneously on Stalingrad and the Caucasus. Not only would this open up a dangerous gap between these two groups, but the new plan ignored military reality: there were just not enough German mobile divisions to accomplish both tasks.
Most of the panzer divisions were at first diverted south, leaving only 6th Army the task of slugging forward against increasing Soviet opposition. They had already marched almost 400 miles in the hot summer of 1942, but now fought a series of heavy battles on the long road to Stalingrad. The 6th Army’s commander, Friedrich von Paulus, soon became convinced that he needed further support to crack through the Soviet resistance, and multiple panzer divisions were sent back north from the Caucasus drive – which got weaker just as it was coming up against bitter Soviet resistance in the mountains. The poor state of Soviet roads continued to impede German movement, and the defiant Russian soldiers forced the Germans to pull more troops from either flank to concentrate on the drive into Stalingrad. The Romanians and Hungarians were deployed to cover either flank as the 6th Army pushed on into the city.
The Soviets had not had an easy time of it. Stalin had been incensed by the earlier retreats, fuming that Red Army generals had given ground when they should have fought for it. This caused him to issue his infamous “Not One Step Back” Order No. 227, which was intended to prevent panic and mass withdrawal in the face of German attacks. While it has acquired a fearsome reputation in modern myth, Order No. 227 was nowhere near as draconian as later depicted; the infamous scene from “Enemy at the Gates” where Soviet machine-gunners massacre their own retreating soldiers is a complete fabrication. The “blocking detachments” were more commonly just an MP force that gathered up fleeing soldiers and sent them back to their units. Despite the movie, only 49 Red Army soldiers were executed for desertion or malingering during the Battle of Stalingrad.
Nevertheless, Soviet forces had been severely mauled by the German attacks, and despite their heavy resistance suffered enormous losses. By August 1942, the Soviets had lost the battles west of Stalingrad, and the 62nd and 64th Armies were retreating into the city itself, with the Germans hot on their heels. The first troops of the German 6th Army entered the suburbs of Stalingrad on August 23, 1942, officially beginning the most legendary battle of the German-Soviet War. On that same day, the Luftwaffe launched a savage bombing campaign that turned much of the city to rubble. Some 1,000 tons of bombs fell on Stalingrad in 48 hours, which undoubtedly killed many civilians.
The Soviet 62nd Army, under General Vasily Chuikov, organized the defense of Stalingrad. Among his first concerns were the 400,000 civilian residents still trapped in the city, most of whom would suffer catastrophic fates in the days to come. Stalin had refused to divert precious railroad traffic to evacuate the city, since he believed that their labor could help defend the city. Civilians including women and children survived – and died – in Stalingrad, throughout the battle, digging trenches, running messages, and generally trying to stay alive. Around 40,000 of Stalingrad’s civilians would be taken back to Germany as slave labor, and some managed to find their way out, but when the battle ended only a fraction of the original population were still alive.
Stalingrad was a massive industrial city, stretching north to south for almost 18 miles on the Volga River, with several large factory complexes and workers’ quarters. The Soviets held the east bank of the Volga throughout the battle, and had to send troops and supplies across to the city in exposed ferries and river craft. By September, the Germans had reached the Volga north and south of the city, leaving the defenders isolated in a tight pocket focused on their Volga landing sites. This meant that reinforcement was hard, the Soviets were at an immense disadvantage, and the pressure was on. The 62nd Army would be desperately outnumbered throughout most of the battle, and only sheer determination and the occasional arrival of reinforcements would stem the massive mechanized tide of the 6th Army.
By September 12, in fact, the Soviets had been reduced to only 20,000 personnel and 90 tanks, facing the nearly 270,000 personnel of 6th Army. Stalin had begun to divert multiple infantry divisions south to assist in the fighting, and various reinforcements trickled in over time, but Chuikov had his work cut out for him. From an underground bunker on the Stalingrad side of the Volga, under constant aerial and artillery bombardment, he kept his headquarters running day and night, communicating by field telephone over the shrieking of rockets and the impact of bombs, which send sprays of dirt all over his papers and equipment. The German 6th Army was only skirmishing at this point. It was preparing for the major attack.
On September 14, General Paulus launched his first coordinated attack on the city. One infantry division went after the Mamayev Kurgan hill, and another went after the key train station which dominated the Volga crossing sites. When the Germans took both these objectives, Chuikov had to organize desperate, near-suicidal attacks to retake the objectives, since losing either one meant his army would be split in two. The 13th Guards Rifle Division came across the Volga ferries and sprinted right up Mamayev Kurgan, suffering brutal losses. Over 30 percent of its soldiers died in the first 24 hours in Stalingrad, and only 3% survived the whole battle. The railroad station changed hands 14 times in six hours.
The whole struggle for Stalingrad disintegrated into some of the most brutal combat in human history. The Germans called the urban warfare “Rattenkrieg” – the “Rat War.” The Soviet defenders converted every building into a small fortress, and the Germans joked about capturing the kitchen but waiting until tomorrow for the living room. Apartment blocks, warehouses, factories, office buildings, grain silos – all turned into their own bitter, apocalyptic struggles as the Germans and Soviets grappled to death in the ruins of Stalingrad. Legendarily, Stalingrad became a sniper haven, with the famous Vasily Zaytsev racking up 225 confirmed kills during the battle. Both sides used the sewer system as a secure means of movement, and the battle turned into a struggle not of army versus army, but of platoons, squads, and even man versus man. “The meter replaced the kilometer, and the city plan replaced the Staff map.”
It cannot be forgotten that among Stalingrad’s most stalwart defenders were women. General Chuikov acknowledged that “Equally with men they bore all the burdens of combat life.” 75,000 women served in the battle for Stalingrad. While the bulk served as medics, nurses, or rear-area soldiers, a large number fought as machine-gunners, snipers, and tank crewmen. The initial German advance on Stalingrad had only been slowed by a mostly-female antiaircraft unit, the 1077th, who refused to retreat and turned their AA guns on the advancing panzers until they were all killed or overrun. Despite modern perceptions, the Soviet defenders of Stalingrad were courageous, dedicated, and motivated less by fear of their own side than a determination so fierce it still resonates today. The 62nd Army was prepared to resist to the death – and in many cases it did.
Among the two most iconic struggles of Stalingrad were the battles for the grain elevator and for Pavlov’s House. A force of 50 Soviet soldiers held the giant grain elevator in south Stalingrad, fighting off one assault after another even after the grain caught fire. The smoldering grain blinded and choked the Red Army defenders even as they fought to the last bullet and the last man, and only 10 were able to escape after they held off the Nazi assaults for three days. General Paulus vowed to put the grain elevator on his “victory badge” once the Battle of Stalingrad was over (spoiler: he would never make that victory badge.)
Sergeant Yakov Pavlov and his Red Army fortified an apartment building in central Stalingrad 300 meters from the Volga. They barricaded the walls, set up machine guns, and mined the exterior. Starting on September 27, Pavlov and his platoon would hold “Pavlov’s House” for two months, resisting one attack after another. Due to the narrow streets, German tanks could not elevate their guns high enough to fire into the upper floors, and despite numerous occasions when Germans gained the ground floor, they never expelled Pavlov or his men. Pavlov’s 25 men called in artillery support, dropped bombs on tanks from the windows, and repeatedly ran out of food and water. They were only relieved in November after 58 days and nights of straight resistance. On the German maps, Pavlov’s House was simply labeled “Fortress.”
As Stalingrad wore on, both commanders showed the strain. Paulus developed a nervous tic on the entire left side of his face, while Chuikov’s long-term exposure and life underground caused him to develop eczema. Both Germans and Soviets were fully committed to the Battle for Stalingrad, which had suddenly begun to assume a far larger symbolic than strategic role. The Germans had far more firepower than the Soviets, and the Red Army would suffer apocalyptic losses in the hellstorm of Stalingrad – but they hung on to the city against all odds. The Germans would take ground throughout September, and October, and they would even control 80% of the city by November 1942. On the tactical level, the Germans were winning the Battle of Stalingrad. But the Soviets were never beaten, the city was never taken, and the 6th Army beat itself to death trying.
As the Germans launched their second major attack on September 27, 1942, they had already lost the battle – though they did not know it. Almost without their realizing it, German priorities had changed. What had begun in June 1942 as a drive to take the critical Caucasus oil fields had somehow devolved. By September 1942, Stalingrad was now the main target of the German offensive, and the Caucasus battle was left hung out to dry. Stalingrad had been a decidedly unimportant objective in the original plan, with one German general calling it “no more than a name on the map to us.” The whole Blue operation had been expressly designed to avoid a major battle of attrition.
The Germans had bungled their 1942 campaign. Instead of seizing the Russian oil, they had found themselves bogged down in a grinding battle of attrition in the nightmare apocalypse of Stalingrad. By trying to seize two objectives at once, they gained neither. Hitler became obsessed with Stalingrad, trying to direct individual regiments and battalions from his headquarters hundreds of miles away. As winter approached, as the Soviets gathered their forces, and as more and more German troops from all over Russia were sucked into the black hole of death and fire that was Stalingrad, it became a symbol for the whole war.
The Germans dug their own grave in Stalingrad, trading massive casualties for yards of ruined urban terrain. And it was all for nothing. Stalingrad was worthless as an objective or even as a position, but Nazi Germany used its precious energy and limited resources to take it because it had Stalin’s name on it. The Wehrmacht had broken Stalingrad, but had in the process broken itself.
On November 16, 1942, the first snow fell in the city. Three days after that, all hell broke loose. From now on, it would be the Soviets taking the Germans to school. Tune in on November 19 for the turn of the tide at Stalingrad.