There are many ways to date the beginning of the Battle of Stalingrad. I've chosen August 23 because that was the date of the intensive German air bombardment that reduced the city to the piles of rubble and twisted steel so familiar from pictures of the fighting. I could as easily have chosen September 13, the date of German 6th Army's first major ground offensive. However one dates its beginning, the Battle of Stalingrad was truly the Mother of All Battles. It was the most significant battle of the Second World War and the one that broke the back of the German war machine. After the remnants of the 6th Army surrendered on February 2, 1943 Germany's defeat was inevitable. The rest of the War on the Eastern Front was a series of desperate rear-guard actions as the Germans retreated to the west before the Red Army.
Barbarossa was the code-name of the German plan to invade Russia. Hitler had laid out his intentions in Mein Kampf back in 1926. He believed that the Reich needed lebensraum. Farm land was limited in the Germany and inadequate to feed the German people. The solution was to seize the rich agricultural lands of Russia. The Slavic untermenschen were to be driven off or starved and the land colonized by Germans.The invasion of the Soviet Union commenced on June 22, 1941, in violation of the 1939 German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, and was spectacularly successful at first.
The Red Army was totally unprepared for Blitzkrieg. Their equipment was obsolete and the best of their officer corps had been victims of Stalin's paranoid political purges. Millions of Red Army soldiers were captured in huge encirclements and most of their aircraft destroyed on the ground. Stalin refused to believe initial reports of the invasion and holed up in his dacha, astonished that one genocidal dictator would lie to another. The German plan called for three Army Groups to attack on a broad front across the entire Soviet border. Army group North attacked towards Leningrad, Army Group Center attacked through Belarus towards Moscow and Army Group South advanced through Ukraine. The plan was to defeat the Soviet Union in a single season and it seemed to be working until the invasion stalled on the outskirts of Moscow in the winter of 1941. American intelligence had assured the Soviets that the Japanese did not intend to attack from the east and they were able to transfer Siberian reserves into the Battle of Moscow. The capital was saved and the Germans dug in and prepared to renew offensive operations in the spring of '42.
Katyusha, Katie or Cathy in English, is the title of a song that was hugely popular in Russia during the War. Written in 1938, it's about a young girl whose true love has been called away to defend the Motherland.
Katyusha was also the nick-name of an innovative, and very effective, Soviet weapon system. Simple steel rails were mounted on truck beds and used to launch rockets. As many as 48 unguided rockets could be ripple fired in seconds. The rockets were not as accurate as regular artillery but they didn't have to be. The effect of all those warheads going off in rapid succession within a few hundred square yards must have been terrifying. The music video above was shot in modern times but the truck that the singer is standing on is a vintage ZiS-5 of the type that was originally used for the Katyusha rocket launcher. The final version of the system, standardized in 1942, used Studebaker 6x4 trucks. First sent to Russia as part of Lend-Lease, and later manufactured in Russia, the American trucks were more reliable and had better off-road performance than Russian trucks.
Case Blue was the code-name for Army Group South's campaign in the summer of 1942. Germany was not self-sufficient in oil, no small matter for a mechanized army. The plan was for Army Group South to attack southwards into the Caucuses to capture the oil fields at Baku. Part of the group was to attack westward towards the Don River to cover their left flank. The Führer, military genius that he was, changed the plan. He split Army Group South into two groups, A and B. Army Group A was to carry out the original mission of seizing the oil fields. Army Group B, which now included the unfortunate 6th Army, was to take Stalingrad, an industrial city on the Volga River. The destruction of Stalingrad would shut down its tank production. It would also allow Germany to control river traffic, as the Confederates did at Vicksburg.
Just like Barbarossa in '41, Army Group B's 1942 campaign started off pretty well. Elements of Army Group B crossed the Don on August 21. On August 23, the same day that Stalingrad was being flattened by the Luftwaffe, German units reached the Volga. There was another big air raid on the 25th. The situation was desperate for the Soviets. The Stalingrad Front, the Red Army equivalent of an army group, was reorganized for the defense. General Yeremenko was put in charge. In those days the Red Army had a dual-command system. In each unit, down to platoons in some cases, a Bolshevik Commissar shared command with the regular army commander. Yeremenko's Commissar was Nikita Khrushchev. The two of them put General Chuikov in command of the 62nd Rifle Army and told him to hold the city. By September 3 the 62nd was clinging to what was essentially a bridgehead on the west bank. The west bank is higher than the east bank. Chuikov's HQ was a dug-out in a ravine in the bluffs overlooking the Volga. Supplies and fresh troops were brought into the pocket by boat. Casualties and a few civilians went out the same way. Every serviceable boat for miles up and down the river was pressed into service. The NKVD tightly controlled the landings on each bank. When General Rodimtsev's 13th Guards Rifle Division was ferried across on September 14 they got off their boats and went on the attack immediately, straight up the bluffs just a few meters away. Although the Germans had air superiority and could attack the crossing from the air, bombing and strafing the boats, operations on the east bank could be continued with relative security. Supplies could be stockpiled, reserve units assembled, and the wounded cared for. Soviet artillery, massed on the east bank and firing across the river, played a huge role in the battle. The key thing was for Chuikov to hold his position on the west bank. His soldiers were the bait in the trap that was about to be sprung on the Germans.
Order No. 227
One of the things that helped stiffen Red Army resolve was Order No. 227. Issued by the Premier of the Soviet Union and capo di tutti capo of the Bolshevik mafia Joseph Stalin on July 28, 1942, the order was commonly known as the "Not One Step Backwards" order. It was read to all the troops in the Red Army. This order introduced blocking battalions and punishment battalions. Blocking battalions were well-armed detachments who set up a line behind the first wave of an attack in order to shoot any "traitors to the Motherland" who turned back. An estimated 13,500 Red Army soldiers were executed during the Battle of Stalingrad. Punishment battalions were organized from miscreants who had breached regulations and GULag inmates. These units were given the most dangerous, often suicidal, assignments with the promise of freedom if they survived. And yes, they were sometimes used to clear minefields by marching through them.
The fighting in Stalingrad was house-to-house. Often opposing armies occupied different floors of the same building. The Germans called it "rat war." It was a deliberate tactic, initiated by Chuikov. If both sides were close to each other, the German air advantage was nullified. They wouldn't bomb if there was a good chance of hitting their own. Ruined factories and apartment houses became strong points. The most famous of these was Pavlov's House. A platoon of the 42nd Guards Regiment occupied a 4-story building with a good field of fire in early September. Their officer was blinded and Sergeant Jakob Pavlov took command. Pavlov and his men held that position for 58 days until relieved. Chuikov used to joke that they killed more Germans than the French did in the defense of Paris.
Snipers were very important in the Red Army. There were a couple of famous ones at Stalingrad. During one of the Soviet Union's 5-year plans, a coal miner named Stakhanov mined more than his required quota of coal. He was made a "role-model" for all Soviet workers. His achievement was exaggerated in Party propaganda. He was an official hero; written about and dragged around the country to talk to workers. From then on there were Stakhanovite Workers in every field. Vasily Zaytsev was a Stakhanovite sniper, said to have 225 confirmed kills. He trained apprentices and started a movement in the Army, "sniperism." The book Enemy at the Gates, and the movie made from it, are dramatizations of Zaytsev's exploits at Stalingrad. The highest scoring sniper in the Red Army was a woman, Lyudmila Pavlichenko, who was credited with 309 kills.
While all the sniping and house-to-house was going on in town. Marshal of the Soviet Union Georgy Zhukov, Deputy CinC of the Red Army, who was in overall command of the Southwestern Front, was planning a counter-offensive. It was to be a classic double envelopment. While Chuikov's forces on the west bank were holding on with their fingernails, Zhukov was massing troops north and south of the Germans. The left flank of the 6th Army was guarded by Germany's ill-equipped and less-than-Teutonic Romanian allies. On November 19, 1942 Soviet units attacked the 3rd Romanian Army from the north. The next day the other arm of the pincer attacked the German 4th Panzer Army from the south. The two Soviet spearheads met at Kalach on November 22. The Germans were surrounded.
This is the final stage of the battle. Once the encirclement was established it was strengthened with double inward and outward facing lines. The 6th Army's rail and road communications were cut. Goering assured Hitler that "Fortress Stalingrad" could be supplied by air. The 6th Army estimated its needs at 700 tons/day. Hitler asked Goering if 500 were possible. Goering checked with his staff who said 350 tons might be possible. With that the 6th Army was doomed. The airlift was never able to supply even the bare minimum of 300 tons/day. Food, fuel and ammunition all had to be flown in. It was impossible. German soldiers could not fight and they began to die of starvation and exposure. On December 24 Russian tanks showed up suddenly at Tatsinskaya airfield and began to shoot up German aircraft. Anything that could fly left the airfield under fire, never to return. "Tazi" as the Germans called it, was where the airlift transports took off from. When it was taken, air supply of any kind was out of the question.
My Two Cents
This fuzzy map shows the stages in the reduction of the Kessel. I'm no Field Marshal, but this is where I would have stopped. The 6th Army is no longer a threat. If they want to follow Hitler's "No Surrender" order, fine. Let 'em starve. It seems to me that the Kessel is now a big POW camp. Instead of wasting men and materiel forcing the Germans into a smaller and smaller ring, I would have tried to cut off Army Group A who were still in the Caucuses. Anyway, as you can see by the map, the Soviets just kept tightening the noose. The two little airplane symbols are the remaining airfields, Pitomnik and Gumrak. The Luftwaffe was no longer able to get much in at all, but flights out from these fields were very hot tickets indeed.
The Commander of the German 6th Army, Field Marshal Von Paulus, surrendered to the Soviets on January 31, 1943. The rest of his army, with the exception of a few isolated hold-outs, surrendered on February 2. Estimates vary of the number of Axis soldiers trapped in the Kessel. The lowest estimate I've seen is 195,000. On December 6 the German Quartermaster reported German ration requirements at 275,000. The Soviets took 91,000 POWs, of which less than 6,000 ever made it to back to Germany. The Red Army reported exactly 1,219,619 casualties, along with between 25,000 and 40,000 civilian deaths.
Thanks to all who read and commented. I'm always surprised at how well informed Kossaks are; so many good historians and armchair generals in this thread. I often tell people to be sure about what they write here because, whatever your subject is, somebody out there has a PhD. in it. This has actually happened to me, by the way.
Lagniappe, from the cutting room floor
The Red Baron
The Luftwaffe commander who directed the bombing of Stalingrad in August was Colonel-General Wolfram von Richthofen, cousin of the more famous but much less bloody Red Baron. He had commanded the Condor Legion in Spain and pioneered terror bombing at Guernica.
There was a factory at Stalingrad that manufactured T-34 tanks. During the battle they were driven directly off the assembly line, loaded and sent into action. They were unpainted and not fitted with gun sights. The gun was sighted by the the loader who looked out at the target through the bore before loading.
In Soviet Union, You Bite Frost
The Germans had many casualties from frostbite, which they treated as legitimate injuries. In the Red Army getting frostbite was a punishable offense. This was Russia after all, where people grew up around frostbite and ought to have known how to avoid it. Who but a malingerer would have frostbite ? Off to the shtrafbat. The Germans discovered that Russian style foot-rags were actually warmer than socks.
I haven't put any links in, supposing that you guys can google the stuff as easy as I can.
Here are Wikipedia links for:
Battle of Stalingrad
Katyusha Rocket Launcher
Order No. 227