WEEKEND BIG READ: 70 years on - the battle of Stalingrad

Seventy years ago today Hitler’s armies at Stalingrad surrendered after 200 days of the most savage fighting. Geoffrey Roberts on the moment the long, crooked and twisted journey to today’s democratic Europe began

NO battle of the Second World War has captured the public imagination as consistently as the clash between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia at Stalingrad. For 70 years the story of the fight for Stalin’s city on the river Volga has been told and retold.

Why? Because Stalingrad was an epic struggle unmatched by any other in its scope, drama and importance.

Even at the time it was clear Stalingrad would be a crucial encounter that could determine not only the success or failure of Hitler’s invasion of Russia but the outcome of the whole war. If Hitler could win at Stalingrad he would secure the resources and position to sustain a prolonged war of attrition against the Soviet Union and to wage a global war with Britain and the United States. The German surrender at Stalingrad on Feb 2, 1943 signalled that Hitler would lose the Second World War. Indeed, two years later the Nazi dictator was dead and the Red Army was in the final hours of another great city battle — this time for Berlin. The capture of the German capital cost the lives of 80,000 Soviet soldiers but it brought the Second World War to an end and Germany surrendered unconditionally on May 9, 1945.


Hitler’s Axis allies — Italy, Hungary and Romania — all lost armies at Stalingrad and began to distance themselves from Germany, seeking a separate peace with the Allied coalition. In Italy the disaster contributed to dictator Benito Mussolini’s fall from power a few months later and to Italy switching sides in the war.

While German civilian morale was damaged beyond repair by the defeat at Stalingrad the Soviet victory inspired resistance movements in Nazi-occupied Europe to fight even harder for their countries’ liberation. In Britain and United States the victorious Red Army was hailed as the saviour of European civilisation.

Yet until Stalingrad was won the British and American governments dragged their feet in negotiations with the Soviets about the configuration of the postwar world, waiting to see how the war on the Eastern Front progressed. After the battle it was clear the Soviet Union would soon be in a position to dominate Europe. Winston Churchill, for Britain, and Franklin Roosevelt, for the US, hurried to woo the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin into a peacetime grand alliance. It was the failure of the grand alliance in the immediate postwar period that led to the tense stand-offs of the cold war. Yet, in important respects, the European and international order created by the Soviet victory in the Second World War persists to this day. In Putin’s Russia, for instance, the victory at Stalingrad continues to be celebrated as a symbol of the predominant role of Russians in winning the Second World War and of the country’s status as a great world power, notwithstanding the failure of communism.

It is important in looking back to remind ourselves that the battle for Stalingrad was, as the Duke of Wellington famously said of Waterloo, a near run thing. Fighting in and around Stalingrad went on for some 200 days and the city could have fallen to the Germans on many occasions. The loss of ‘Stalin’s city’ would have been a devastating strategic and psychological blow for the Soviets. Standing between Stalin and catastrophic defeat were a few thousand Soviet soldiers whose desperate struggles became a byword for ferocious combat and “do or die” defence.

Hitler’s ill-fated drive to Stalingrad began with the failure of Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s Blitzkrieg (lightning) invasion of Russia launched on June 22, 1941. Between June and December, German forces drove deep into the Soviet Union, capturing the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, penetrating as far north as Leningrad, and reaching the outskirts of Moscow. German panzer divisions smashed up the Red Army and, in huge encirclement operations, captured millions of Soviet soldiers.

But Hitler failed to achieve his strategic objective of defeating Russia in a single, short campaign. “You only have to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down,” he said before the invasion. Russian defences did indeed prove to be fragile, but the communist system was more durable than Hitler thought possible. While downplaying official communist ideology, Stalin rallied the country and mobilised its resources to mount a patriotic defence against the Nazi invaders. This resistance halted the German advance in front of Moscow and, crucially, bought the Soviets time to prepare for the next phase of the war.

Operation Barbarossa was a multi-pronged, broad front invasion that achieved significant successes but at great cost to Hitler, including more than a million casualties and substantial losses of equipment. By 1942 the Germans were no longer capable of waging another broad front campaign in Russia. Instead, they had to concentrate their resources in a single, strategic operation. Hitler was also engaged in a global war of attrition with the allied coalition. To continue waging that war he needed to take control of Soviet economic resources in the Ukraine and in the Caucasus. Above all, he needed the oil fields of Baku, which lay on the other side of the Caucasus mountains, deep in the southern Soviet Union. Capture of those fields would secure essential fuel supplies for the Germans as well as cripple the Soviet war economy.

So the German summer campaign of 1942 was essentially a war for oil, launched with the strategic aim of taking Baku, the capital of the Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. Along the way the Germans would also seize Stalingrad. The city’s strategic location on the Volga river would enable them to block oil supplies to northern Russia and protect against any Soviet counterattack.

The German thrust south, begun in June 1942, initially was a tremendous success. “The Russian is finished”, exclaimed a delighted Hitler as his armies advanced towards Stalingrad and Baku, capturing hundreds of thousands more Soviet prisoners. By the end of August the Germans had reached Stalingrad and were poised to take the city by storm. The onslaught began with blanket air raids that reduced much of the city into a burning pyre and killed many thousands of civilians. Then German troops advanced through the city towards the Volga, aiming to take control of the riverbank and to cut off supplies and reinforcements to the defending Soviets. It had been a hard fight to reach Stalingrad, but the commander of the German 6th army, General Fredrich Paulus, expected to take the city quickly and easily. The 100,000-strong German force, deployed to take the city, outnumbered their Soviet counterparts 2:1 in personnel and equipment.

Defending Stalingrad was the 62nd Soviet army led by General Vasily Chuikov. His men (and many women, too) defended from strongholds in the shattered remnants of Stalingrad’s buildings and factories. Inspired by Chuikov’s leadership, the 62nd army deployed highly effective city-street fighting tactics. “Every trench, every pill box, every rifle pit and every ruin turned into a stronghold,” the Soviet writer Vasilii Grossman reported from Stalingrad; a battle “fought not for individual buildings and shops, but for every step of a staircase, for a corner in some narrow corridor, for separate machine tools and for the passage-way between them.”

The Germans fought hard, too, but were demoralised by their failure to take the city quickly. Captured diaries of German soldiers referred to the Soviet defenders as “devils” who just would not give up, and to Stalingrad itself as a nightmare inferno of fire, smoke and explosions. By November Paulus’s army occupied 90% of Stalingrad, but Chuikov’s forces remained entrenched in a 16-mile strip adjacent to the Volga. As long as the 62nd army held this position they could be re-supplied from across river and continue to threaten the German position in the city.

In defending Stalingrad Chuikov’s army incurred an incredible 75% casualty rate. One division of 10,000 – the ill-fated 13th Guards — emerged from the battle with only 320 survivors. Incredibly, many men in this division were sent into close-quarter fighting without ammunition. Throughout September and October the Germans attacked incessantly and the Soviet defence of the city was on a knife-edge. Even minor collapses of the defensive position threatened disaster and a dwindling of morale or a break in the will to resist could have triggered the rapid disintegration of the Soviets’ efforts.

Why did the Soviet defenders fight so hard and for so long in such difficult conditions? It has become fashionable in some quarters to downplay the heroism of the Soviet defence of Stalingrad. Antony Beevor, for example, devotes many pages of his well-known book on Stalingrad to detailing Soviet coercion of their own troops. He gives the impression that draconian discipline and compulsion, not least the summary execution of many thousands of wavering Red army soldiers, were the main reasons for the successful Soviet defence.

A different view is presented by Michel Jones in his book Stalingrad: How The Red Army Triumphed (2007). Jones uses the testimony of Red Army veterans of Stalingrad as evidence that the solidarity and bravery of Stalingrad’s defenders was not an invention of Soviet propaganda. Jones points out that while the Soviets did execute many retreating soldiers, more than 90% of those caught were returned to their units. Indeed, units of the Soviet security police were among the most ferocious defenders of Stalingrad, fighting alongside their Red Army comrades.

In my own book Victory at Stalingrad: The Battle That Changed History (2002) I point out that while discipline and desperation certainly played their part, if the Soviets had relied only on these the Germans surely would have won. The decisive factors for morale were the politics and psychology of mounting a patriotic defence against a murderous enemy. The soldiers knew the German campaign in Russia was no ordinary war; the Nazis were waging a racist war of annihilation and destruction. In 1941-1942 millions of Soviet citizens perished at the hands of the Germans, among them a million Soviet Jews executed by the SS and two million Soviet POWs who died from maltreatment in German captivity. By the war’s end, the Soviet death toll had risen to 24-25 million people, of whom 8 million were military fatalities.

The Stalin regime was brutal, authoritarian and ruthless, characteristics that helped it to accomplish the defence of Stalingrad -— supported by the popular appeal to defend the motherland. Quite simply, the vast majority of Soviet defenders at Stalingrad saw themselves fighting not only for their own lives but for the very survival of their country and society. “Kill the Germans”, exhorted Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg, “or they will desecrate the whole of Russia and torture to death millions more people.”

The Soviet success was very much against the military odds when the struggle began in summer 1942. Yet by mid-November, with the Germans bogged down in Stalingrad and their push towards the Caucasus stalled, the Soviets were ready to launch their counteroffensive.

On Nov 19, 1942, three Red Army groups attacked, encircling Paulus’s forces in Stalingrad and destroying the Axis armies defending the Germans’ flanks. By the end of the battle 150,000 Germans lay dead in the city and another 100,000 had been taken prisoner. The Germans and their axis allies lost 50 divisions during their failed campaign to capture Stalingrad and Baku, incurring 1.5 million casualties. Among the casualties were 20 divisions of Paulus’s elite 6th German Army, entombed in Stalingrad.

The masterminds behind the Soviet counter-offensive at Stalingrad were Stalin’s deputy supreme commander, General Georgy Zhukov, and General Alexander Vasilevsky, Chief of the General Staff. Their strategy was to hold out in Stalingrad and wear the Germans down whilst preparing a massive counter-attack.

“Operation Uranus”, as the city encirclement operation was codenamed, was one of series of Soviet counteroffensives designed to collapse the German position along the entire Eastern Front. “Operation Mars”, launched a few days later attacked the Germans in the central sector in front of Moscow, while “Operation Saturn” – the follow-up to Uranus – was designed to trap a 450,000-strong German army fighting in the Caucasus. Astonishingly, it was the ambition of Stalin and his generals to not only defeat the Germans at Stalingrad but to win the whole war through these operations.

While the Red Army was not strong enough to sustain this multi-pronged strategic counter-offensive so as to immediately win the war, the success at Stalingrad was a decisive turning point. Yet the Soviet victories were not without their cost. During the course of the Stalingrad campaign alone, the Soviets suffered a million fatalities — the same number as the combined American, British and Commonwealth losses during the whole of the Second World War.

Heroism and self-sacrifice played a crucial role in Soviet success. The other main factor in sustaining the Soviet forces in Stalingrad was their ability to re-supply defenders from across the Volga river while, in the skies above, the Red Army Air Force fought with the Luftwaffe for air superiority. On the eastern bank of the Volga, Soviet artillery and rocket launchers fired a barrage of explosives on German units in the city.

The ability to supply defenders and to mount counter-offensives indicated how well the Soviets had been able to recover their economic and military capacity, even as the battles on the Eastern Front raged. At the height of the Germans’ 1942 summer campaign success Hitler’s forces occupied half of European Russia — a million square miles of territory that contained 40% of the Soviet population, 50% of the cultivated land and 60-70% of the country’s industry. Stalin’s “no retreat” order — Ni shagu nazad! (Not a step back) — was issued in this context. The recovery of production by Soviet defence industries and the continuing mobilisation of Soviet human resources were extraordinary. By the time of the Stalingrad counter-offensive in November 1942, the Soviets were able to deploy a fully-equipped and fresh armed force of three-quarters of million soldiers against the Germans. A similar-sized force went into action in Operation Mars against Army Group Centre. Their preparations were aided by the arrival of so-called “lend-lease” supplies — particularly trucks from Britain, Canada and the US — although the great bulk of western support material did not reach the Soviets until after Stalingrad.
In the aftermath of the Second World War the significance of the battle for Stalingrad tended to be lost to cold war polemics. Winston Churchill’s influential memoir-history of the war presented a narrative of the conflict that sidelined the importance of the Eastern Front to emphasise British and American military achievements. But even he had to admit the significance of Stalingrad. It was, after all, Churchill at the Tehran conference of November 1943 who had presented Stalin with King George VI’s commemorative sword to celebrate that great victory.

Another common treatment in the postwar historiography of Stalingrad has been to downplay the Soviet victory by focusing on the German mistakes that led to defeat. For example, it is said that Hitler’s great mistake was to split his southern offensive in order to achieve two strategic goals simultaneously — an advance to Baku and the capture of Stalingrad. However, it was not only Hitler who believed both ambitions could be fulfilled — his generals did, too.

Another “mistake” often cited was Hitler’s order that Paulus fight on in Stalingrad rather than attempt a breakout following encirclement by the Red Army. Hitler’s decision in this respect, too, was supported by most of his commanders. He was assured the 6th Army could be kept supplied by air and a breakthrough could be effected from outside. However, the Luftwaffe’s air supply operation failed dismally, as did the operation to create a landbridge to the trapped 6th Army. In fact, the Germans had no alternative but to fight on in Stalingrad. A withdrawal by the 6th Army would have been militarily costly as well as dealing a debilitating psychological blow to German forces fighting elsewhere on the Eastern Front. As Hitler correctly concluded, it was far better the 6th Army go down fighting and create a precedent of heroic self-sacrifice — one that would serve the Nazi cause well for the rest of the war.

So the real story of Stalingrad remains not Hitler’s mistakes but Stalin’s successes in adapting his leadership and the Soviet regime to the needs of the situation. Defending Stalingrad forged a unified military and political Soviet leadership in which Stalin deferred to the professional advice of his generals while they tutored him in the operational arts of battle. Equally, the Soviet high command grew to respect Stalin’s steady nerve, his capacity to be clear and decisive, and his shrewd judgement of the political situation. This analysis, however, does not suit the politics of western cold war warriors who prefer to depict the battle for Stalingrad as a contest between two equally repugnant totalitarian systems in which the more ruthless emerged as victor.

The Soviet Union fought the war against the Nazis and their allies under the banner of defending Europe’s freedom, democracy and national independence. In practice, Stalin allowed very little freedom in the territories he controlled in the immediate postwar period or in the Eastern bloc in later years. Democracy was distorted and national independence severely curtailed. But while the repressive, authoritarian rule of the Soviets oppressed many people it was preferable to Hitler’s racist empire. And Stalin’s rhetoric of freedom and propaganda about democracy were later to be turned against him and his Soviet successors. The path to today’s democratic Europe of nation-states was crooked and twisted but it started with the Soviet victory at Stalingrad.

The fight for Stalingrad was a classic battle of resources, strategy and human will between two immensely powerful and determined sides. The Second World War, whose outcome Stalingrad did so much to determine, concluded with the United States dropping atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The coming of the nuclear era meant there would never be another battle like Stalingrad. The greatest battle of the pre-atomic war era is an epic struggle that will never be surpassed

- Professor Geoffrey Roberts is Head of the School of History at UCC. His latest book is Stalin’s General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov.


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