By Aaron Paget
In 1942, “the German army lurched deep into the south of Russia”. Operation Barbarossa was the name given to Nazi Germany’s invasion of Russia on June 22nd 1941. Barbarossa was the largest military attack of World War 2 and was to have serious consequences for the Russian people. The Battle of Stalingrad took place between June 17, 1942 and February 2, 1943, during the Second World War. Stalingrad was known as Tsaritsyn until 1925 and has been known as Volgograd since 1961. When Operation Barbarossa is launched, Hitler proclaimed, ‘the world will hold its breath. On June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa. The armed forces of Germany and its allies invaded the Soviet Union, quickly advancing deep into Soviet territory. An army Group went north, led by von Leeb, An army Group went Central, which was commanded by von Bock and an Army Group went south which was commanded by von Rundstedt. In December, having suffered multiple defeats during the summer and autumn, Soviet forces counter-attacked during the Battle of Moscow and successfully drove the German Army (Wehrmacht Heer) from Moscow. By the summer of 1942 the German army had surrounded Leningrad. There were a number of salient’s in the line where Soviet offensives had pushed the Germans back, notably to the northwest of Moscow and south of Kharkov, but neither was particularly threatening. In the far south the Germans were in control of most of the Ukraine and much of the Crimean, although Sevastopol remained in Soviet hands along with a small portion of the Kerch peninsula. The Germans were confident they could master the Red Army when winter weather no longer impeded their mobility. There was some substance to this belief: while Army Group Center (Heeresgruppe Mitte) had suffered heavy punishment, 65 percent had not been engaged during the winter fighting, and had been rested and reequipped. Army Groups North and South had not been particularly hard pressed over the winter.
By mid 1942, when Russia was still very weak from its tremendous losses, the German military was again ready to demonstrate its invasion. In the summer of 1942 formidable fighting forces had already cost Russia over one million soldiers, half killed and half captured by the Germans, and a large part of its huge percentage of its territory and resources. With the help of Russia’s arctic winter, Hitler’s Generals wanted to attack in the direction of Moscow again, in order take Russia’s capital city, its heart and nerve center, and to crush most of Russia’s remaining military forces while doing so, but Hitler now personally commanded the German army, and he listened to his Generals much less than before. Soviet troops fought street by street and building by building to stop the Germans taking control of Stalingrad.
Confusing matters considerably was the recent entry of the United States following Germany’s declaration of war in support of its Japanese ally. To everyone’s surprise, the new Anglo-American Allies stated that their first priority was Germany. Hitler wanted to end the fighting on the Eastern Front, or at least minimize it, before the Americans had a chance to get deeply involved in the war in Europe. Whatever plan they chose it would have to have sweeping strategic importance. Limited operations, like collapsing the salient’s or finally taking Leningrad, would simply not force the war to a close.
Moscow was thus an obvious target. Capturing Moscow could conceivably force the Soviets to surrender, or at least so upset their command, control and manufacturing to remove them as a major force. However, an important part of the German “Blitzkrieg” style of warfare was to attack at the least obvious point, in order to concentrate the offensive against the weakest defence, punching through, and then maintaining a highly mobile offensive in order to keep the enemy off balance. Moscow was just as obvious a target to the Soviets as the Germans, and was heavily defended as a result. Although a successful offensive was certainly possible, it would likely be a costly victory.
Another possibility was to upset the strategic balance by cutting off the Soviet supplies. The basic theory behind total war was that if the industrial output of a country could be disrupted, their military forces would be unable to fight and be defeated as a matter of course. Hitler himself had always claimed to favour this style of warfare, and had personally intervened during Barbarossa to capture areas he felt were of prime industrial importance (much to the chagrin of his generals). In this case there was an obvious target, the oil fields of the Caucasus area, which supplied the Soviets with the vast majority of their fuel. An offensive in this area would also complete the takeover of the Ukraine. If the Volga could be reached, grain supplies from much of the Soviet “breadbasket” would be cut off completely, as it travelled either by barge on the Volga, or trains on lines further west that would also be overrun.
The capture of Stalingrad was important to Hitler for two primary reasons. Firstly, it was a major industrial city on the Volga River (a vital transport route between the Caspian Sea and Northern Russia. Secondly, its capture would secure the left flank of the German armies as they advanced into the oil-rich Caucasus region) with a goal of cutting off fuel to Stalin’s war machine. The fact that the city bore the name of Hitler’s nemesis, Joseph Stalin, would make its capture an ideological and propaganda coup. Stalin realized this, also, and despite being under tremendous constraints of time and resources, ordered anyone who was strong enough to hold a rifle be sent out to defend the city. The Red Army, at this stage of the war, was less capable of highly mobile operations than the German Army; however, the prospect of combat inside a large urban area, which would be dominated by short-range firearms rather than armoured and mechanized tactics, minimized the Red Army’s disadvantages against the Germans.
Before the Wehrmacht reached the city itself, the Luftwaffe had rendered the Volga River, vital for bringing supplies into the city, virtually unusable to Soviet shipping. Between 25 July and 31 July, 32 Soviet ships were sunk with another nine crippled. The battle began with the heavy bombing of the city by the Generaloberst von Richthofen’s Luftflotte 4, which in the summer and autumn of 1942 was the mightiest single air command in the world. Some 1,000 tons were dropped. The city was quickly turned to rubble, although some factories survived and continued production whilst workers joined in the fighting. The Croatian 369th Reinforced Infantry Regiment was the only non-German unit selected by the Wehrmacht to enter Stalingrad city during assault operations. Stalin prevented civilians from leaving the city on the promise that their presence would encourage greater resistance from the city’s defenders. Civilians, including women and children, were put to work building trench works and protective fortifications. A massive German air bombardment on August 23rd caused a firestorm, killing thousands and turning Stalingrad into a vast landscape of rubble and burnt ruins. Ninety percent of the living space in the Voroshilovskiy area was destroyed. In sharp winter sunshine, Soviet troops advanced through the ruins of Stalingrad.
The Germans inside the pocket retreated from the suburbs of Stalingrad to the city itself. The loss of the two airfields at Pitomnik on 16 January and Gumrak on the 25 January meant an end to air supplies and to the evacuation of the wounded. Other sources indicate Luftwaffe’s last flight from Gumrak was night 21st to 22nd of January 1943. Third and last serviceable runway was Stalingradskaja flight school which reportedly had last Luftwaffe landings and takeoff night 22nd to 23rd of January 1943. After daytime 23rd of January 1943 there were no more reported landings except for continuous air drops of ammunition and food until the end. The Germans were now not only starving, but running out of ammunition. Nevertheless they continued to resist stubbornly, partly because they believed the Soviets would execute those who surrendered. In particular, the so-called “HiWis”, Soviet citizens fighting for the Germans, had no illusions about their fate if captured. The Soviets, in turn, were initially surprised by the large number of German forces they had trapped, and had to reinforce their encircling forces. Bloody urban warfare began again in Stalingrad, but this time it was the Germans who were pushed back to the banks of the Volga. They fortified their positions in the factory districts and the Soviets encountered almost the same tooth-and-nail ferocity that they themselves displayed a month earlier. The Germans adapted a simple defence of fixing wire nets over all windows to protect themselves from grenades. The Soviets responded by fixing fish hooks to the grenades so they stuck to the nets when thrown. The Germans now had no usable tanks in the city. Those tanks which still functioned could at best be used as stationary cannons. The Soviets did not bother employing tanks in areas where the urban destruction ruined their mobility. A Soviet envoy made Paulus a generous surrender offer that if he surrendered within 24 hours, the Germans would receive a guarantee of safety for all prisoners, medical care for the German sick and wounded, a promise that prisoners would be allowed to keep their personal belongings, “normal” food rations, and repatriation to whatever country they wished to go to after the war but Paulus, ordered not to surrender by Adolf Hitler, did not reply, ensuring the destruction of the 6th Army.