The 75th anniversary of the end of the Battle of Stalingrad occurred in February of this year.
Historians rightly consider the Soviet defeat of Nazi forces at the strategic industrial river city of Stalingrad “Stalin City”– now Volgograd – the turning point in World War II.
The history of the savage clash of two ruthless dictators over territory not in Hitler’s original war plans has fascinated military strategists, war history enthusiasts, and general readers for decades since.
The importance of the study of history is reinforced by the climactic battle at Stalingrad.
The death toll alone approached an astounding 2 million people on both sides.
A review of the contest of wills between the Third Reich and the Soviet Union at Stalingrad follows in a question and answer format.
Discover the events that preceded the battle.
Follow the highlights of the struggle for victory in Stalingrad.
Finally, read on to find out about authoritative good books for a deeper dive into fascinating story of one of the most important battles for primacy in the twentieth century.
What events led up to Battle of Stalingrad?
Despite the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact of 1939 outlining a truce between Berlin and Moscow (named for each respective foreign minister), including secret codicils to divide up Poland, suspicions between the two countries lingered.
Bloodthirsty territorial-hungry despots share similar goals, methods, and habits.
After steamrolling over Poland, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Holland, and France by 1940, Hitler had early thoughts about Russia.
When the Royal Air Force narrowly stunted the vaunted Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain, the German dictator ramped up plans to conquer more eastern territory. Bad habits die slowly.
Anyway, Slavs were deemed inferior in his paranoiac race-obsessed mind. He quipped about bursting into the Soviet Union and the rest would just collapse inward.
Delay and Oil
Events cost the Wehrmacht crucial time before the invasion of the Soviet Union.
Germany had alliance obligations with its partner (and protector of its southern flank), the equally megalomaniacal Benito Mussolini of Italy.
Italy like Germany was basically frozen out of the hunt for colonies unlike France and Great Britain.
Mussolini, starting with the Abyssinian Crisis in the 1930s, seized the moment on the global stage to pick up crumbs.
Italy was a poor warrior for the Axis Powers in World War II.
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In late October 1940, Italian forces spilled over from tiny Albania into Greece, but within a week General Alexandros Papagos’ Greek army with Royal Air Force support routed some 200,000 Italian invaders.
Hitler felt an obligation to bail out Mussolini, and more than once it turned out. Plus, he eyed Allied access to the Romanian oil fields. Bucharest officially had joined the Axis side in on November 23, 1940.
Responding to an anti-Berlin coup in Yugoslavia and the flagging Italian effort in Greece, Germany invaded and defeated the immediate threat by April 1941.
When the British left Greece for refuge on Crete, German paratroopers, despite a disastrous operation, seized the strategic island in the Mediterranean.
In December 1940, the Italian 10th Army was vanquished by the British in North Africa in Operation Compass and thus entered the “Desert Fox” Erwin Rommel, one of Germany’s ablest generals and committed Nazi (who later was implicated in a plot to assassinate Hitler).
Again, the thirst for oil to fuel the Wehrmacht was a factor in rescuing Mussolini in North Africa. Berlin had visions of sweeping across the Middle East to the Baku oil fields.
The perhaps less than magnanimous moves had three long-term effects:
- postponed the invasion of Russia
- expanded the war obligations (men, supplies, etc.) of Germany,
- entangled the Wehrmacht in a guerrilla war in Yugoslavia which festered as the years marched on.
Operation Barbarossa, the code name for the German invasion of Russia, was named after medieval Holy Roman Emperor Frederick the Great who had a red beard.
Barbarossa, the largest military offensive in human history, began on June 22, 1941 – a 38 days later than expected.
At the start of Operation Barbarossa, Germany poured 19 Panzer divisions, 3,000 tanks, 2,500 aircraft, and 7,000 artillery pieces across a wide thousand-mile front.
Three army groups – North, Center, and South – launched across the vast countryside to reach Leningrad, Moscow, and Kiev, respectively.
The rapid penetrating, and persistent push eastward by the Wehrmacht under the cover of the Luftwaffe succeeded despite spirited Russian resistance.
Within a single week, German forces advanced 200 miles into Soviet territory, destroyed nearly 4,000 aircraft, and killed, captured, or wounded some 600,000 Red Army troops.
The German High Command’s prediction of a 6-month saunter to victory appeared on track.
However, Stalin’s scorched earth policy, deliberate retreat eastward, the long distances across the Soviet Union and thus longer supply lines, and constant partisan and Red Army attacks began to take their toll.
Then, Hitler changed the initial war plan and not for the last time.
He insisted that Army Group Center turn back to help Group South to smash Soviet and partisan fighters around Kiev – ignoring the advice of his generals to continue the thrust toward Moscow.
On the Road to Moscow
After securing Ukraine with more time lost, the slog forward on the road to Moscow and stiffening Russian resistance in key towns like Smolensk (as Napoleon encountered), delayed the final push for Moscow in Operation Typhoon to October 1941.
Along a 150-mile front, the Wehrmacht boasted 15 Panzer divisions, eight motorized divisions, and 47 infantry divisions—a total of about 1.9 million men – to effect a double envelopment of Soviet frontline forces at the rail hub of Vyaz’ma on the Smolensk-Moscow highway.
Time had run out.
Another Soviet ally – the weather – started to afflict German forces.
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The Germans, even First Army Group and Gen. Fedor von Bock who urged Hitler to press Moscow despite worsening weather conditions, may have remembered that Napoleon also got bogged down in his own invasion of Russia before being chased out.
First, ideal conditions gave way to the “Raputista” – heavy rains and mud buildup that made many roads impassable and bogged down mechanized units.
Second, “General Winter” blew snow and cold that increased fuel consumption to keep engines humming to keep them from freezing.
Finally, the harsh weather and fierce concentrated Soviet engagements close to Moscow further slowed forward progress to a crawl.
Hitler was finally forced to suspend all offensive operations.
In frustration, he sacked Chief of the German High Command staff, Gen. Franz Halder, and assumed direct control over military operations, something his generals always feared would happen
Dire Consequences of Barbarossa
A Soviet winter counter-offensive drove German troops away from Moscow but depleted the Red Army’s reserves.
Afterwards, front lines stabilized in the long bitter cold winter until the spring of 1942.
However, Barbarossa alone was not sufficient to collapse the Soviet Union.
The consequences of German operations in 1941 were six-fold.
First, German forces were spent after long drives hampered by incessant sniping.
Second, the time delay pushed back operations.
Third, the frigid Soviet winter exposed many soldiers to frostbite, caused machinery to break down, and froze forward progress short of the Wehrmacht’s objectives.
Fourth, the Germans had no real material strategic gains after slaughtering 3 million Russians and imprisoning another 3 million.
Instead, an enraged and energized population with a history of absorbing unfathomable pain and privation surrounded the invaders from the West.
Fifth, on December 7, 1941, Axis ally, Japan, bombed the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in one of the most stunning sneak attacks in history.
Germany and Italy prompted declared war against the United States.
Germany was now locked in a war with both the world’s largest land power, the Soviet Union, the greatest mercantile empire, Great Britain, and the biggest industrial power, the United States.
Finally, one of the changes to reverberate throughout later campaigns was Hitler’s takeover of military operations.
The generals’ large reservoir of distrust and distaste for the command decisions of their leader would grow in operations.
On to Road to Stalingrad
The thaw in the early summer of 1942 revved up action along the vast Russian front. Attention turned first to the southern sector.
Hopes soared when in May 1942 a new Soviet offensive to expand upon their strategic initiative was smashed by German forces in the so-named Second Battle of Kharkov.
Hitler, increasingly directing military operations in Berlin, decided to shift his offensive to early August.
For both symbolic (“Stalin City”) and strategic reasons, he ordered the Sixth Army under General Friedrich von Paulus to advance towards the city of Stalingrad.
The capture of Stalingrad, a vital communications center, would deny Soviet resupply using the largest river in Europe – the Volga – (the “Soul of Russia”), and open up shipments from the Baku oil fields to the south.
The advance to the Volga by General Friedrich von Paulus’s Sixth Army was meant to provide strategic flank cover for the all-important advance into the Caucasus (Baku).
Operation Blue – the code name for the campaign to seize Stalingrad – split southern sector armies in two.
German troops were accompanied by the inferior units of Italian, and Hungarian allies, one weak link in the overall plan.
The Stavka Soviet High Command figured Moscow was the target of the German offensive, not Stalingrad on the shoals of the serpentine Volga.
What was the Battle of Stalingrad?
When the Wehrmacht whirred into action in June 1942 to implement Operation Blue, the initial advance of 300 miles surprised Moscow.
As 700,000 Germans bared down on Stalingrad, Stalin issued Order No. 227, with its famous command: “Ni shagu nazad!”, or “Not one step backwards!”
The Luftwaffe and artillery opened the assault by smashing to rubble the city which made it became impassable to tanks, but ideal terrain for defenders ironically.
By August 23, the Germans were in the suburbs, where fighting turned ferocious. Sometimes the combat was room to room in bombed out buildings, basements, sewers, and the abandoned factories in the ruined industrial city.
The video below illustrates the vicious clash in Stalingrad.
Snipers easily used the terrain to pick off targets even though there is doubt now about the veracity of the story as depicted in the movie, Enemy at the Gates, about the famous Soviet sniper, Vasily Zaitsev.
Russian grunt soldiers did not fight for socialism, nor Russia, but their own lives, their spines steeled with a gun barrel if they tried to flee.
The siege of Stalingrad lasted from 27 September to 25 November 1942 and eventually the Soviet forces managed to relieve the fortified Pavlov’s House.
In another instance, Red Army defenders defended their position in the for 60 days against a heavy Wehrmacht offensive.
Ironically, Germany’s Case Blue operation against Stalingrad was supposed to encircle and smash Soviet forces around the city on the Volga.
Instead, the Soviets’ Operation Uranus ( planned by Generals Georgy Zhukov, Aleksandr Vasilevsky, and Nikolay Voronov) encircled, and squeezed the German 6th Army led by General Freidrich Paulus and his 300,000 Axis troops.
Field Marshal von Manstein, whom Hitler had previously sent north to Leningrad doubled back in a failed attempt to rescue Paulus.
Hitler cynically believed his appointment of Paulus to field marshal would avoid an ignoble surrender since no field marshal had surrendered to the enemy.
Paulus knew he was beaten and defied his maniacal Fuhrer’s orders.
The human tragedy of the Battle of Stalingrad finally ended in February 1943, when the German Sixth Army Commander, Gen. Friedrich Paulus, surrendered the remaining ninety thousand troops of his army to the Soviets.
The indignity of Paulus’ surrender in the city with the name of Hitler’s nemesis was a fitting end to one of the world’s greatest and costliest in terms of lives, and treasure.
Why did the Soviets prevail at Stalingrad and what were the consequences for the course of the war?
Are there history lessons to be gleaned from the Battle of Stalingrad?
Stalin’s spies in Berlin told him of the coming invasion. He seemingly refused to believe them and actually trusted Hitler.
Some say Stalin was fixated on the idea that Germany would first resolve the matter with Great Britain before turning east.
Your enemy is allowed to mistakes in war.
Only the threat to his own power moved the Soviet despot to react.
Let’s turn to specifics about Stalingrad.
Why the Soviets Won
A mix of reasons explain – in 20/20 hindsight – the Soviet victory over the Germans.
The following six reasons are by no means exhaustive.
First, from the beginning, the Germans overestimated their own capabilities and underestimated Soviet ones.
Your enemy always has a vote on the course of a war, too.
Namely, the Abwehr (Germany’s military intelligence) severely underestimated the size of Soviet reserves.
Second, the treacherous slog under constant fire from the fringes of eastern Poland to the gates of Moscow overextended German supply lines.
Logistics trumps strategy in war plans.
Another unfortunate invader of Russia – Napoleon – also wrestled with supplies of his forces.
The French dictator faced a logistical nightmare of quite staggering proportions, requiring a wagon train of no fewer than 26 battalions – eight equipped with 600 light and medium wagons each, and the rest with 252 four-horse wagons capable of carrying 1.36 tons (a grand total of 9,300 wagons).
Third, the Germans violated Clausewitz’s principle on uniting your forces:
“There is no higher and simpler law of strategy than that of keeping one’s forces concentrated.”
The split into Army Group A and B diluted the German strength.
The original war aim of the offensive in the south was to secure the oil fields in the Caucasus, not entanglement in the largely symbolic “Stalin City” to score points against Hitler’s communist nemesis.
Fourth, avoid urban warfare. Stalingrad was the first great extended urban conflict in the history of modern warfare.
Conventional military tools – tanks and large organized units – are poorly fitted to guerrilla warfare, especially in dilapidated city landscape like Stalingrad.
The German forces were not suited for that type of warfare especially in unfamiliar territory where the enemy knows every city block.
Sixth, Germany flouted historical lessons as parallels between Napoleon’s foray into Russia and Hitler’s into the Soviet Union unfolded.
Two dictators bent on domination of Continental Europe inevitably were drawn into war with its traditional large land power, Russia.
Each were welcomed in the “Motherland” with scorched earth tactics and a strong Russian will to endure pain, recoil, and throw off Western invaders.
Napoleonic France and Hitlerite Germany plunged into the vast deep Russian heartland and finally reached a breaking point because of distance, weather, and constant sniping from the local around every corner.
Both also failed to conquer Britain and reaped the rewards later in their own destruction.
The Consequences of a Soviet Victory
There were manifold ramifications of the Soviet victory at Stalingrad.
First, Germany’s 2-pronged attack on “Stalin City” was its last offensive military operation in the Eastern Theater.
Second, now, the tables were turned.
The hornet’s nest stirred up by a maniacal dictator over 1000 kilometers away would face the Soviet Union as the aggressor until his ultimate death in the decisive Battle for Berlin in April 1945.
Third, one of the most savage and bitter urban warfare battles of the 20th century – the Battle of Stalingrad – proved the high watermark for the Third Reich.
Fourth, Stalingrad along with Midway (June 1942) in the Pacific torpedoing Japanese naval power, and El Alamein in North Africa (October 1942) routing the “Desert Fox” added to the losses of the Axis Powers.
Certainly much sacrifice, and many horrific campaigns loomed, but only with the luxury of hindsight, the days of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan were numbered.
What are the top 10 history books on the Battle of Stalingrad?
To learn more about the German invasion of the Soviet Union and specifically the campaign at Stalingrad, consider these resources.
Operation Barbarossa: Hitler’s Invasion of Russia 1941. By David M. Glantz, a world expert on Hitler’s war in Russia. Buy from Amazon.com
To the Gates of Stalingrad. By David M. Glantz and Jonathan M. House; Buy from Amazon.com
Stalingrad Cauldron. By Frank Ellis. Buy from Amazon.com.
The Road to Stalingrad. By John Erickson. Buy from Amazon.com.
Stalingrad. By Anthony Beevor. Buy from Amazon.com.
Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942-1943. By Anthony Beevor. Buy from Amazon.com.
Stalingrad: The City that Defeated the Third Reich. By Jochen Hellbeck; Buy from Amazon.com.
Survivors of Stalingrad: Eyewitness Accounts from the 6th Army, 1942-1943. By Reinhold Busch; Buy from Amazon.com
Thunder in the East: The Nazi-Soviet War 1941–1945. By Evan Mawdsley. Buy from Amazon.com.
Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict of 1941-1945. By Alan Clark. Buy from Amazon.com.
Please continue your study of history so future mistakes may be avoided.
Unfortunately, a sad state of historical knowledge pervades US youth which bodes ill for a world built on the sacrifice of others.