Fought between August 22, 1942, to February 2, 1943, the Battle of Stalingrad was a huge battle between Nazi Germany and the axis powers and the Soviet Union (also U.S.S.R) which took place in the city of Stalingrad (now Volgograd) during World War II.
Often considered by historians as one of the greatest and bloodiest battles in the entire WWII and modern warfare, the battle is reported to have cost the lives of some 700,000 German and Axis soldiers, and about a million Soviet troops, as well as that of tens of thousands of civilians trapped in the city. The battle culminated in the successful defense of the City by the Soviet Red Army who halted the German advance, and arguably, marked the turning in the war.
Prelude to the Battle
By the middle of World War II, Germany had registered series of military successes having captured lots of territory in much of Present-day Belarus and Ukraine. The Germans had launched an offensive into the western U.S.S.R. aimed at capturing Moscow during the winter of 1941-1942. This attack was, however, countered by the Russians (albeit with heavy losses of manpower and weapons) who forced the Germans to retreat.
German leader Adolf Hitler would not relent in his plans to capture more Soviet territory, but, however, turned his attention towards the south of the country―particularly on the important city of Stalingrad which served as a communications hub and an industrial center in Russia which produced armaments for the country’s troops.
The Volga River, which runs through the city, was also an important shipping route connecting the western part of the country with its distant eastern regions, and capturing the city would ultimately help the Germans cut off Soviet transport links with southern Russia, leaving Stalingrad to then serve to anchor the northern flank of the larger German drive into the oil fields of the Caucasus.
Furthermore, Hitler sought the Wehrmacht to occupy Stalingrad, for personal and propaganda purposes, given that it bore the same name with then Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. For similar reasons, the Russians felt a special need to protect the city at all cost and upon Stalin’s order, every Russian strong enough to hold up arms was called up to take part in the defence of the city. Stalin also ordered that no evacuation be made of the over 400,000 residents of the city, as he believed their presence would be a source of motivation for his troops.
At Hitler’s command, the 6th Army of the Wehrmacht commanded by General Friedrich Paulus, assisted by the Fourth Panzer Army, on August 23, 1942, began an assault on Stalingrad.
The Soviet forces were very aware of German plans and made efforts to resist their advance on the city. Initially, they were able to slow down German advances in July―using the fighting retreat strategy―during a series of brutal skirmishes just north of Stalingrad at the cost of some 200,000 men of the Red Army. However, Germany’s Luftwaffe air force succeeded in rendering the Volga River impassable to shipping and had sunk several Russian commercial vessels in the process.
From late August when the battle began in earnest, through the end of the assault, they conducted series of airstrikes on Stalingrad in which more than a thousand tons of bombs were dropped on the city. This meant that the Luftwaffe essentially had control of the skies over Stalingrad, leaving the Russians desperate. On July 28, Stalin had issued Order No. 227, with is famous decree: “Ni shagu nazad!” (English: “Not One Step Back!”). Retreating meant court-martial and subsequent execution. As reported, workers in the city who were not involved in war-related weapons production were soon called up to take up fighting, often without firearms of their own. Women were also enlisted and asked to dig trenches at the front lines.
Ironically, the bombing of the city had created a rubble-strewn landscape which was perfect for defense. Hidden in the ruins of city buildings, Russian troops engaged the Germans in ferocious close-quarter fighting during the German advance on the city center. This saw both sides―especially the Soviets―suffer heavy casualties. Many Russian units suffered huge losses before even going into action. Soviet Penal Units―several of which contained political prisoners―were used for suicidal charges. At the height of the battle, the average life expectancy of a Soviet soldier was just 24 hours. However, with the approach of winter, the German forces were growing dispirited by heavy loss and fatigue.
On November 19, the Soviets under the Generals Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov, Aleksandr Mikhailovich Vasilevsky, lunched a one-million-man counterattack under Operation Uranus. Despite sustaining heavy losses, the Soviets succeeded in forming a defensive ring around the city and trapped the nearly 300,000 Axis soldiers of the 6th Army, who were left with limited access to supplies and starvation, in a frozen wasteland in and around Stalingrad.
Severally, the Germans tried to resupply their lines, but were, however, left frustrated by the Russians who consolidated their positions around Stalingrad and encircled the Sixth Army. German requests to allow Paulus and his forces to break out of the encirclement and rejoin the main German forces west of the city were vehemently denied by Hitler, who in an effort to encourage his commanding general, made him a field marshal on January 30. He had hoped that as no German field marshal had ever surrendered, Paulus would rather sacrifice himself and his soldiers than surrender. However, this decision left Paulus and his men in a hopeless situation despite attempts to fight on.
End of the Battle
On February 2, 1943―with Russian troops having retaken Stalingrad―General Paulus surrendered with some 91,000 troops that remained. Most of the captured soldiers died in Russian prison camps, either from starvation or disease.
The loss at Stalingrad became the first failure of the war publicly acknowledged by Hitler. It put the Axis powers on the defensive, and boosted Russian confidence in the war. The battle again marked the furthest extent of the German advance into the Soviet Union, and is seen by many historians as the key turning point in the war.
In 1945, Stalingrad was officially proclaimed a Hero City of the Soviet Union for its defence of the motherland.
(By Ejiofor Ekene Olaedo)
SOURCES OF AUTHOR’S INFORMATION
Limbach, R. (n.d.). Battle of Stalingrad. Retrieved June 29, 2020 from Encyclopaedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-Stalingrad
History.com Editors. (2019, June 6). Battle of Stalingrad. Retrieved June 29, 2020 from History: https://www.history.com/.amp/topics/world-war-ii/battle-of-stalingrad
BBC World Service (n.d.). Witness. “The battle of Stalingrad”. Retrieved June 29, 2020 from BBC World Service: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p013nk85