by Joe O’Donohoe
On 1 September 1939, Hitler’s forces invaded Poland and shock the world with a new type of warfare – Blitzkrieg. As a result, Britain and France declared war on Germany. Previous to Hitler’s plans for the domination of Europe, German and Russian foreign ministers signed a non-aggression pact in Moscow on August 23 1939 whose secret appendices had licensed Nazi and Soviet aggression against Poland and the Baltic states. This pact left Hitler to concentrate on the capture of Europe without a Russian attack on Germany but it was inevitable that Hitler would turn his successful eyes on the capture of Russia and so Operation Barbarossa was born.
The first onslaught of the operation in June 1941 carried the German armies to the outskirts of Moscow and Leningrad. In summer 1942, Hitler’s main target was the oil fields of the Caucasus, as its capture would deprive the Russians of their fuel supply. The German sixth army was ordered to take Stalingrad and to smash the enemy forces concentrated there. The reason for the attack here was that Stalingrad was situated along the West Bank of the Volga. Hitler was determined to capture it, as it was a major manufacturing center and the key to the communications system of southern Russia.
By controlling the city, the Germans could block Russian attempts to destroy German armies between the Don and Caucasus. Stalin was equally determined to defend the city, not least, as it bore his name. His order was read out to every soviet soldier ‘not a step backward’. It could be said Hitler was outraged with Stalin’s order and ordered part of the forces that were to occupy the oil fields of the Caucasus to the siege of Stalingrad, maybe in the hope of humiliating Stalin with a quick and victorious battle. He underestimated the Russians. By diverting half his force to this ultimately futile attack, Hitler wrecked the Caucasus campaign, which had a good chance of success.
By mid November 1942 it was evident that the Stalingrad front, like Alamein, was going to see one of the decisive battles of the war – but the balance of forces was very different. At Alamein, Rommel only had 104,000 men, Montgomery had 195,000, Rommel had a mere 489 tanks, Montgomery had 1,029, and Rommel only had 1,219 guns, Montgomery 2,311 and there had only been 675 axis aircraft against 750 allied. The forces were equal at Stalingrad. The formidable infantry strength of the sixth army was actually higher than that of the opposing Soviet armies and none of the Wermachts deficiencies in the other arms was as serious as those at Alamein. Any idea that the Red army overwhelmed the Germans with a massive superiority in all arms is therefore misleading. Zhukofov had no intention of tackling the sixth army in a head on clash. The forces he was stealthily massing for the coming offensive were intended to achieve a complete superiority over the weaker Rumanian armies, strung out along the axis front on both flanks of the sixth army, to cut of the hardcore German forces in the Stalingrad area itself. In addition, this plan was to be one of the most soundly calculated in the Red armies’ entire history.
The strength of the German and Russian forces were as follows: Wermacht – Friedrich Paulus Sixth army, Fourth Panzer Army, Third and Fourth Rumanian Armies Infantry – 1,011, 500 Guns — 10,290 Tanks — 675 Planes — 1,216
Red Army – Gen Zhukov Southwest front, Stalingrad front, Don front Infantry – 1,000,500 Guns — 13,541 Tanks — 894 Planes — 1,115. From August 23, when German sixth army forces, commanded by General Friedrich Paulus, reached the Volga at Stalingrad, Soviet and German infantry fought a long, house to house, hand to hand battle for the city. Soviet infantry, while being pushed back, would wire buildings with mines creating death traps for the advancing Germans. The defending Russian army was fanatical, they contested every street and factory, whether still standing or totally destroyed. Territory which the Germans, with their superior firepower, had won by day was regained by the soviets at night.
On August 23 the German Luftwaffe broached the northern edge of the city and bombed it to rubble. The Soviet 62 army, under the command of general Vasily Chuikov, was driven into the central part of Stalingrad. By mid September, the Soviets controlled only a nine-mile strip of the city along the Volga. With their backs to the river, the fight for the city looked hopeless for the soviets. However, the Nazi troops were tired, low on supplies and weary of an offensive that was taking more time than expected. Again, nature smiled on Russia as winter set in. The winter counter offensive was the brainchild of Soviet generals G. Zhukov, A. Vasilevsky and N. Voronav. On November 19/20, 1942, a dual Soviet attack was launched against the Germans fifty miles north and fifty miles south of Stalingrad. The idea was to encircle the German forces and cut them off from each other. On November 23, the two Soviet flanks had joined about sixty miles to the west of Stalingrad, successfully encircling the Germans. Hitler forbade Paulus from attempting to break out to the rear, which he might have done early in the encirclement.
Georing promised him an airlift, which never materialized. A relief army stalled in December, rations were reduced and ammunition was running low. In January, the Russians called on Paulus to surrender. Hitler ordered him to refuse, made him a Fieldmarshall and informed him that no German Fieldmarshall had ever been taken alive. The German position was now hopeless. The troops slowly froze, starved and ran out of ammunition. Paulus forces were divided into two parts by the Russians thrust- by 30 January he was trapped in the basement of the large shopping center in Stalingrad where he had set up his final headquarters. Hitler would not allow a proposed retreat of nazi troops from the city to join their fellow units stationed west of Stalingrad. Once again, with winter setting in, Hitler ordered his men to stand their ground in a city, which they had bombed into the ground and with insufficient supplies. With 91,000 starving and sick troops, the German commander in Stalingrad, Friedrich Paulus Surrendered to the Red army on January, 31, 1943. 24 other German commanders surrendered with Paulus. The battle of Stalingrad was a turning point in the war in Europe and demise of Hitler. He lost two armies to casualties and capture, was humiliated and found himself out maneuvered by the unexpectedly talented Soviet commanders, primarily Zhukov.
The soviet victory at Stalingrad resulted in Hitler removing his troops from the Caucasus. The third Soviet army drove west from Voronezh and, in the battle of Kursk reclaimed the Caucasus for the Soviet Union. The territory taken by Germany in the summer of 1942 was quickly lost on February 8, 1943. An early thaw enabled the Germans to make their retreat along the Black Sea and regroup for another offensive. By 1944, the soviets managed to push their way into Eastern Europe. Finally, the allies had to deal with Stalin and the fact that he intended to dominate the states, which he had liberated from Germany. This gave him an incredible landmass, a geographical shield for the motherland from any aggression from the west and increased human resources. The cold war had begun.
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Hayward. Joel. S. A. Stopped at Stalingrad: The Luftwaffe and Hitler’s Defeat In the East 1942-1943, University Press Of Kansas, 2001.
Beever. A. Stalingrad, Penguin Books, 1999.