Illustration depicting fighting in the Western Factory District during the Battle of Stalingrad

Stalingrad – An Act Of Horror And Heroism

Illustration depicting fighting in the Western Factory District during the Battle of Stalingrad
WARNING: This article contains themes of historical warfare that some readers might find distressing.

If the events of the Second World War were mapped onto a Shakespearean five-act play, Hitler would be an obvious choice for a modern Macbeth.

Indeed, a Google search pairing the two turns up over two million results.

In terms of plot structure, Hitler's demise at the end of the fifth act in April, 1945 - after the Red Army and the Western Allies closed in like Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane - all fits the play analogy well.

The starting point for this grand drama is also straight-forwardly intuitive. 

Following some exposition about German post-World-War-1 grievance, the September 1939 invasion of Poland would launch the story.

But the parallels do not end there. Besides the ‘inciting incident’ of the Poland invasion, and the climactic 1945 Battle of Berlin, there is another way in which these real and fictional dramas match up.

‘Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey into Story’ by John Yorke features an analysis the midpoint of Macbeth’s plotline. Yorke says that a successful story like this usually has a significant event or change of fortune for the protagonist about halfway through it. 

In this case, Macbeth’s murder of his former friend and comrade Banquo performs this dramatic function. It occurs exactly halfway through, in Act 3, scene iii, and ends with the escape of Banquo’s son Florence. Macbeth himself, Yorke shows, understands that after this has happened there is no chance of turning back. Having killed the king of Scotland and stolen his crown, Macbeth is haunted by Banquo’s ghost and the prospect that one of his descendants will end up on the throne instead.

But what of the real-life drama of World War 2?

What was its murder-of-Banquo midpoint moment?

Since the war was fought on multiple fronts, there is no strictly correct answer. One could point to several equivalent events that happened in different places.

Churchill famously said that before the Battle of El Alamein there was no victory, and after it no defeat for the British and their Western Allies.

That wasn’t strictly true since they had defeated the Italians in battle before that, as Andrew Roberts points out in 'The Storm of War'. However, the Allies certainly seem to have experienced a general change of fortune in the Africa campaign around 1942.

Roberts also argues that Hitler’s prospects really worsened earlier than this, in December 1941. It was then that he foolishly declared war on the US after it entered the conflict against Japan, in the political and literal wake of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Anthony Beevor agrees, pointing also to the concurrent failure by the Germans to capture Moscow as another turning point on the road that led to Nazi defeat.

Though he also says that this was only a change in direction geopolitically, industrially, economically and demographically. It did not become clear to those involved that the proverbial pendulum was about to swing the other way until slightly later.

Instead, this psychological turning point, Beevor says, occurred not at Moscow in December 1941, but the following year, at Stalingrad.

Map showing Volgagrad in the Caucasus and RussiaMap showing Volgagrad in the Caucasus and Russia
Google map showing Volgagrad in the Caucasus
Stalingrad (or Volgagrad) shown to the north east of the Caspian Sea (images: Google)

In terms of the analogy presented here, the timing of this battle could not be better. It started almost exactly halfway through the war, in August, 1942. 

It was also suitably grand. In ‘Warfare and Armed Conflicts’, Michael Clodfelter compares it to Verdun and the Somme in World War 1, battles so huge they were practically wars in and of themselves. While Stalingrad was not the longest of these three campaigns, Clodfelter concludes from the available data that it probably was the bloodiest.

It also began with a superlative: the largest air and ground bombardment up to that point in the eastern front campaign. 

Before it came, the 600,000 citizens of Stalingrad had been living in a model city, replete, Beevor says, with gardens along the high banks of the Volga. The city was unusual geographically in that it hugged the river so closely that it was 25 miles in length but only five in depth, and so it was naturally subdivided. The northern third was industrial, with factories like the Red October Steel Plant and Tractor Factory. These had switched over by this point to war production, cranking out T-34 tanks, amongst other things. In the south, there were tall white cubist-style apartment buildings. And the middle of the city had a Tartar burial mount known as the Mamayev (or Mamaev) Kurgan, on which people were out having picnics when the German attack began on Sunday, August 23, 1942.

3D map Battle of Stalingrad
3D map showing how the Germans, in red/orange, smothered the city with a series of ground assaults, these one taking place between September 27 and October 7 (image from ‘Stalingrad 1942’ by Peter Antill © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Beevor describes how the 1,600 sorties* launched that day blanketed the city with 1,000 tons of bombs.

(*A sortie is a single trip out on a mission and back again by a given aircraft).

Air raid sirens wailed from within the city, though at first it was not clear if this was a false alarm. Citizens soon learnt that it was not: apartment buildings became infernos, Beevor says, concussed so severely by bombs that even while they remained standing, internal floors collapsed, burying many alive. 

Streets running parallel to the Volga throbbed with terrified, scattering refugees, scrambling to find cover in cellars or amongst gardens and courtyards when more bombs fell.

Wooden houses in the south west of the city went up in flames, mothers were left with dead babies and children with dead parents. 

And after petrol tanks besides the Volga were struck, they sent flames a kilometre and a half into the air, leaving behind a column of smoke visible for 200 miles. One German airman whose plane was hit parachuted down only to float helplessly into the raging fires below. 

Stalingrad or Volgagrad 3D map 1 GoogleStalingrad or Volgagrad 3D map 2 Google
Stalingrad or Volgagrad 3D map 3 Google
3D views of Stalingrad, or Volgagrad, today (images: Google)

About 40,000 people died in these initial attacks, roughly seven percent of the pre-battle population. 

It was just the beginning. Many more civilians would become casualties, abandoned and stranded in the city thanks to their own side. Stalin ordered that there should be no general withdrawal, lest it demoralise fighters and the wider Soviet Union. And the NKVD commandeered boats so they could ferry supplies and reinforcements across from the east bank of the Volga, trapping many of those on the western side. Some civilians did get out, but many others remained stranded.

The NKVD, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, were the Soviet security police and they enforced discipline with an iron fist. The attitude of some of these officers about the kinds of brutal activities they carried out might be guessed at from an interview with Vladimir Ogryzko. He was a veteran of the war and former NKVD member who spoke on the BBC program ‘War of the Century’:

“Blocking detachments played a psychological, morale-supporting role. They instilled a sense of responsibility in our soldiers, especially the officers, so that they held the front-line and did their duty. We forced them to fight to the death. If they resisted or ran away, we eliminated them. We shot them, that’s all. They weren’t fighters any more. It was hard, it was bad, I understand, but what can you do?”

Blocking detachments, or blocking groups, were NKVD units that shot down men fleeing the battlefield. Ogryzko was referring to a different battlefront, though one presumes many members of the NKVD at Stalingrad had a similar view of their work. 

Around 13,500 Soviet soldiers were also formerly executed during the battle for offences such as cowardice and treachery. 

In contrast to the immediate fire brought upon fleeing troops, it was usual practice to force these unfortunate souls to strip naked before they were shot dead by a firing squad. That way their uniforms could be passed on.

(The Germans were not much better. They sentenced many thousands of their own troops to death as well over the course of the war. The British policy of execution by firing squad was not used in the Second World War. When it was used in the First, comparatively few men, 306, were actually executed).

Soviet strongarm methods like blocking detachments are depicted in the film ‘Enemy at the Gates’, which is based loosely on the William Craig book of the same name. (The movie adopted its title).

The film centres on a fictionalised version of real-life sniper Vasily Zaitsev, who participated in the battle of Stalingrad. Beevor has said that, atmospheric battle scenes aside, the film has its inaccuracies. (More below).  

The following clip shows Zaitsev (played by Jude Law) journeying across the Volga to the city on its west bank. 

Law and his comrades are kept aboard boats at gunpoint while German Stuka dive bombers scream down in relentless attacks. The Germans made a point of targeting reinforcements and supplies as they bobbed across the Volga, both by air and with ground fire once they got within range.

Jude Law as Vasily Zaitsev shown crossing the Volga in ‘Ehemy at the Gates’

Beevor describes the Soviet soldiers as riding into an image of hell, with fires raging on the opposite bank as they approached, casting sinister shadows of mangled buildings once the sun went down.

Decomposing bodies piling up in the city also emitted a stink that made its way to soldiers’ nostils as they crossed the river. 

When they got to the other side, these sights and smells, nor threats from NKVD men, kept them from rushing ashore to fight. They knew that the longer they stayed on their boats, the more likely they were to get picked off by enemy fire. 

With violence at this intensity throughout the battle, it is little wonder that only a fraction of those who entered the fighting early, on either side, made it to the end. 

Beevor gives the example of the Soviet 13 Guards Rifle Division that was engaged at this early phase of the campaign, in September, 1942. 10,000 men made up this unit at the outset of their involvement in Stalingrad. By the end, a mere 320 had survived, a rate of just 3.2 percent. 

Intense fighting raged throughout the city, with different areas contested for different reasons.

Thanks to the advantageous sight lines it permitted, the Mamayev Kurgan - the hill in the centre of the city – changed hands multiple times. When it was held by the Germans, it facilitated firing upon enemy boats crossing the Volga. And once in Soviet possession, it could be used to frustrate the German advance.

Street view of the monument commemorating the battle that stands at Mamayev Kurgan (embed: Google)

Another site of particularly dogged combat was the enormous grain silo just down river. This was a concrete dome and so of great use as a defensive position to anyone who held it.

Come September 18, that meant a mere 50 or so Soviet troops, left clinging on with no water in the dusty, cough-inducing interior. 

Two days after that, they had no grenades or ammunition for anti-tank weapons left either. When the Germans poured in, even their small-arms ammunition was rapidly dwindling and they fired whatever bullets they had through the darkness, in the direction of enemy sounds. Then the survivors escaped, leaving any wounded. 

General der Panzertruppen** Friedrich Paulus, commander of the German 6 Army, the main formation that attacked Stalingrad, commemorated the victory at the grain silo by having its image incorporated into an arm badge. 

(**A tank corps lieutenant general).

While this gesture came out of the deep resonance the battle had, and would have, for his troops, it was also meaningful in a much broader sense. 

For just as Stalingrad ended up at the chronological centre of the Second World War, there is also an extensive backstory to its geography - one that involves the grain silo and helps explain just why it was that Hitler attacked Stalingrad, and the Soviet Union more generally.

The story starts with nomads.

In ‘Origins’, Lewis Dartnell explains that past invasions in this area had generally come out of the inner steppe and were aimed at Europe and the Asian coast, not the other way around.

The main reason for this was the sheer enormity the Eurasian land mass. This causes a climatological contrast between its coasts, which are wetter, and its interior, which is drier. Its margins were therefore always more amenable to settled, agricultural communities which could be more easily supported by regular rainfall.

Meanwhile, its inner steppe was better suited to horse-borne nomads, whose mounts could be fed on the grass that grew in the drier climate of the great sweeping plains. 

Paulus arriving in southern Russia in January 1942 before the Battle of Stalingrad
Paulus shown arriving in southern Russia before the battle, in January, 1942 (image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-021-2081-31A / Mittelstaedt, Heinz / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

This created a pattern whereby nomadic invaders like the Huns and the Mongols would harass settled civilisations like Rome and Ancient China. The trigger was usually population explosions or climate change that put pressure on the nomads’ own food supplies. 

Sometimes the nomads conquered and settled, but more often than not they took what food they needed and left. Soil cultivated for agriculture wasn’t much good for grass-fed horses. 

Yet, like the grass, this process bore its own seeds - those of its eventual destruction.

One by-product of Mongol expansion was the wider dissemination of gunpowder technology. When the settled societies learnt to combine this with better organisation, planning and logistics, it enabled a military revolution in which the Mongols were metaphorically and literally outgunned. 

The agrarian societies could then move further into the Eurasian interior, cultivating the soil there as they went. 

Centuries later, this whole process was repeated, but in reverse. When Germany and its Axis allies plunged into the enormous Soviet empire at the start of Operation Barbarossa in June, 1941, grain was one of the main resources they sought.

German advances from June to August 1941 public domain
German advances made between June and August, 1941, at the opening of Operation Barbarossa (image: Public Domain)

The intention was to settle, and in so doing, to create a wider Germanic empire, the limits of which were originally intended to extend up to the Volga. 

This was meant to create lebensraum, or ‘living space’ for the Germans, establishing the food, material and territorial security Nazi doctrine called for. To Hitler’s mind, this had all been severely and dangerously undermined by interwar economic problems, which included the disruption of international trade. (An issue exacerbated by Allied economic pressure once the war had started).

Peter Frankopan’s ‘Silk Roads’ is a history of the world centred on the trade routes traversing this region. Like Dartnell, he too examines the later Nazi interest in its resources and quotes Hitler as having urged those around him to do whatever it took to acquire this rich territory:

“‘Close your hearts to pity,’ he said. ‘Act brutally. Eighty million people (the population of Germany) must obtain what is their right. Their existence must be made secure’.”

Greater_Germanic_Reich by Hayden120
A map showing the Third Reich with the area planned for ‘living space’ in the east, up to the Caspian Sea and Volga in the bottom right corner (image: Hayden 120)

Frankopan points out that in this instance, Hitler was referring to Poland, but also that the sentiment applied equally to the Soviet Union.

War of the Century features a quote from Hitler displaying similarly brutal and racist logic:

“It is inconceivable that amorphous masses which contribute nothing to civilisation occupy infinite tracts of a soil that is one of the richest in the world.”

Grain was certainly one major resource coveted by Hitler, though oil was another, and this was to be found in the Caucasus, the corridor of land between the Black and Caspian seas.

‘Case Blue’ was a sub-operation of the larger Barbarossa campaign aimed at capturing these oil fields.

Stalingrad featured within it because it was on the left flank of the forces sent south after the oil.

Wheatfield in Ukraine
Ukrainian wheat fields today (Image: © Raimond Spekking/CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

This, at least, was the official rationale for attacking the city, along with the requirement to capture the Volga so that Soviet river traffic could be interdicted. 

Yet, there was also another advantage to holding the Volga at the city of Stalingrad in particular: it bore the name of Hitler’s arch nemesis, the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. 

In a speech he gave on November 8, 1942, Hitler claimed this was coincidental, but Beevor indicates that the battle for the city either was or became deeply personal for the Fuhrer. He boasted about “Stalin’s city” publicly, and, at one point, Paulus also claimed that Hitler was obsessed with the symbolism of it all.

It certainly makes sense that ideology was another major driver of the campaign. Putting Hitler and Stalin’s politically-expedient, pre-war friendship aside, the two men represented mutually exclusive and hostile ideologies. These were Nazism, which was fascism as it manifested in pre-war Germany, and Soviet communism. 

The former was racially and nationally chauvinistic, patriarchal and hierarchical – again, of race and nationhood primarily, though it also preserved existing social hierarchies. Its most enthusiastic adherents were those high in Right Wing Authoritarianism (RWA), a personality type researched by psychologist Robert Altemeyer. Wikipedia says of his work on the topic that the personality features:

“(i) Submission to legitimate authorities; (ii) Aggression towards minority groups whom authorities identified as targets for sanctioned political violence; and (iii) Adherence to cultural values and political beliefs endorsed by the authorities.”

Pictures of Adolf Hitler and a statue of Joseph Stalin
Hitler, left, and a statue of Stalin (images: Shutterstock, 252142192 and 97026098, from the Everett Collection, and Sauletas)

Counter-intuitively, in his book ‘The Authoritarians’, Altemeyer notes that studies in the 1990s on Communist Party members in the former Soviet Union showed that they too were high in RWA traits. Though this does not seem as strange when one considers the nationalistic passions that rose in response to the German invasion, and that were further encouraged by the Soviets in what they dubbed the ‘Great Patriotic War’.

However, communism was also clearly driven by Marxist principles, shaped and defined by a fierce and obsessive egalitarianism. It was also essentially an internationalist movement. Stalin’s predecessor as leader of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin, “wanted to establish a worldwide communist society that would transcend national states altogether”, says Robert Paxton in ‘The Anatomy of Fascism’. The fanatical nationalism of the Nazis could only ever make international socialism completely detestable to them. And in fact, Paxton points out that a major factor in the rise of fascism was that it provided a right-wing populist (i.e. of the people) and nationalistic alternative to socialism. Hence, national socialism - the name of the Nazi Party when translated to English.

So while German fascism and Soviet communism resembled each other in that both were extreme and collectivist, their devotees also despised one another. Underneath their authoritarian carapaces, they were diametrically opposed. 

On an emotional level, Nazi ideology simultaneously fused a mythic past with more recent ideas like Social Darwinism. At the same time, it was intended that German ‘greatness’ would be re-awakened through a war of nationalistic rejuvenation. 

Inherent in these concepts was first that war had intrinsic value, since it bound the nation together in a great feeling of togetherness and provided meaning and purpose. Fascism required continuous aggressive expansion to provide the populace with the “privileged relation with history” it had been promised, Paxton explains. 

Second, war provided the justification, in the Nazi mind set, for the destruction or removal of internal and external enemies. In the Nazi case, that meant Jews and the Slavic peoples of the east, who they also held in distain (again, doubly so since they also happened to live under a communist regime.)

Thus, the campaign against the Soviet Union and Stalingrad is only truly explainable as both a strategic and an ideological mission. Peter Antill sums it all up in ‘Stalingrad 1942’:

“Despite the temporary normalization of relations between the two countries before the outbreak of the Second World War, Hitler always intended to attack the USSR in order to destroy Nazism’s main ideological opponent, to gain the economic, industrial and agricultural resources of Eastern Europe and also to induce Britain to make peace by demonstrating absolute German control of continental Europe.”

Hitler’s plan, Antill says, was to knock out his racial and ideological enemies in the Soviet Union with a one-two punch. This was meant to first draw in and destroy Soviet forces as they rushed to defend the resource-rich western Soviet Union, and then to finish them off by capturing the capital, Moscow. 

Of course, as we know, the Soviets eventually went back to the strategy of retreating and forcing the Germans to stretch out supply lines. In a sense, geography came to the rescue as it had when Napoleon invaded in 1812.

This time, though, the Soviets were learning not just to pull back their forces but to relocate and rebuild whole factories, even while industrial output continued to soar. In 1942, average Soviet tank production was 2,200 per month; average German was just 500.

In this way, the vast tracts of land Hitler sought were both a prize and a trap, entangling his forces to such depth that they would never fully recover. Which must also explain not only why the campaign happened, but also why it was the turning point – the third act of World War 2.

This of course contrasts with strategy at Stalingrad itself, and Stalin’s insistence that there be no abandonment of the city, which in the end turned it into the rock, so to speak, on which Hitler’s forces broke. 

To accomplish this, Soviet soldiers used the broken cityscape to their advantage, withdrawing not into an enormous steppe, but instead into the ruins. The battle raged amongst buildings and rubble, now used to break up and funnel the German formations into kill zones. Here, they could be ambushed by pockets of Soviet soldiers or tanks like the T-34, used as camouflaged and concealed gun emplacements. 

Street fighting, western Factory District Battle of Stalingrad illustration
German soldiers fighting in the western factory district of the city (image from ‘German Soldier vs Soviet Soldier’ by Chris McNab © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

The house-to-house, factory and street fighting also played out, by necessity, at the level of smaller formations. 

Paulus’ German 6 Army and the Soviet 62 Army, commanded by General Vasily Chuikov and tasked with holding the west bank of the Volga, were no longer the dominant formations. Neither were corps, divisions, brigades or even battalions, regiments or companies. 

Instead, the fighting at Stalingrad was often carried out by platoon or section-sized units (which is to say groups of a dozen or so, or perhaps up to around 40 men).

The Soviets engaged their enemies at what were sometimes intimate distances, perhaps only a few yards. Due to the city’s layout and the degree to which the Germans had advanced, whole battlefronts were often as narrow as a few hundred yards. 

This proved advantageous to the Soviets, since it removed the otherwise potent weapon of German air superiority. After the initial air assaults on the city, the Luftwaffe could not engage the Soviets for fear of hitting their own troops nearby. Blitzkrieg had become Rattenkrieg, ‘rat war’.

The intimacy of fighting in the city also lent itself to deployment of just about the smallest formation of all - sniper teams. 

Again, the film Enemy at the Gates gets a certain amount of this aspect of the fighting correct. Beevor says it was certainly commonplace for Soviet snipers to work in pairs, and to target German food carriers, since that put pressure on men on the front lines. (In the clip below, a Soviet sniper targets a telephone repairman).

Furthermore, Texas A&M University’s Roger Reese explains in his review of the film that relationships between male and female Soviet fighters of the kind depicted did occur in reality. (Unlike the patriarchal Germans, the Soviets used hundreds of thousands of women in combat roles). 

Though, like most films, there are also inaccuracies. 

Beevor says that the main thing the film gets wrong is the sniper duel between Zaitsev and the German sharpshooter Major Konig (played by Ed Harris.) Records indicate that Konig never really existed and that the story was therefore a product of Soviet propaganda.

Also, while Zaitsev is the most widely known sniper, he was not actually the highest scoring, achieving 149 kills by late 1942, as compared to 224 by a sharp shooter known as ‘Zikan’.

Claims about other inaccuracies can also be found online. An IMDb page on ‘Enemy at the Gates goofs’ has one comment referring to the fact that the NKVD men who shoot down fleeing soldiers are wearing regular army uniforms. Though Reese notes that the Red Army did form its own blocking detachments as well, so perhaps this particular scene was not a goof after all. 

Reese does have his own list of problems with the film, however, such as the lack of proper military command for Zaitsev beyond that the political officer played by Joseph Fiennes. Even if snipers did work in pairs, their work would have been far more coordinated and directed than it is in the film, he says.

Enemy at the Gates depicting the targeting of a telephone repairman on the German side by a Soviet sniper

For his part, Beevor’s book on Stalingrad of course makes no mention of the Russian child murdered by the evil Major Konig in the film. What he does say is that Soviet soldiers committed similar atrocities themselves.

With snipers hiding throughout the city, some German units used children who had been stranded there as water carriers, getting them to refill their water bottles from the Volga. Soviet soldiers ended the practice by simply shooting the children instead.

Shocking as this is, it was only one horror amongst a whole campaign full of them. There was also the extreme, biting cold of the winter, gangrene, disease and, perhaps most revolting of all, lice.

These found their way onto men across 6 Army. They were numerous enough that they sometimes needed to be pulled off in clumps and flung into a nearby fire when a soldier was operated on in a medical aid post. Orderlies and medics might also witness large numbers of them crawling off a soldier who had died, wriggling away in search of new, living flesh.

Other horrors were also intertwined with heroism. The Germans were more successful at capturing the residential portion of the city in the south than they were the industrial northern area. By early October, fierce fighting was commonplace there amongst the more contested old factories. 

One incident in the ruins of a school in the southern portion of the factory district featured an essentially kamikaze Soviet marine who sacrificed himself to take out a tank. (Marines were used to reinforce Red Army infantry during the battle). 

With his unit having depleted its supply of anti-tank grenades, the marine in question picked up two petrol bombs and prepared to fling them at a panzer. 

As he did so, one of the bombs was ignited by a shot from the Germans, causing the marine to burst into flame. Bolting over the short distance between himself and the enemy tank, he smashed himself and the remaining bomb against it. This set fire to the (vulnerable) engine decks located at the rear of the vehicle, presumably knocking it out of action in the process.

At least one other poor soldier had the misfortune to, in a sense, die twice. 

One Russian executed by firing squad was promptly flung into a shallow grave right afterwards. He awoke a little while later, dug himself out and wondered around, naked, bloody and covered in dirt. When he stumbled across the authorities, they promptly shot him all over again - successfully this time. 

It is stories like this that make one conscious of just how difficult it was for the Soviets to halt and push back the German tidal wave. Though, incidentally, the fact that they eventually did also makes the campaign a good fit for another bit of dramatic structure: the ‘apparent defeat’, or lowest point that a hero reaches right before a shift in fortunes and the fast-paced drive towards the climax.

For the Soviets, that shift had begun quietly, back in September of 1942.

This is when Stalin’s two senior military advisors at the Stavka (the high command), General Georgi Zhukov and Colonel General Alexandr Vasilevsky, were planning a massive countermove.

Stalingrad may have become a symbolic struggle for Hitler, but for the Soviet planners it was a decoy. The city was used as bait for the Germans, who pushed further and further into it. The first wave of major assaults came on between September 14 and 16. This was aimed at the south and centre of the city.

The second wave took place between September 27 and October 7, and the third between October 14 and 29, by which point the cruel Russian winter was coming on.  

Assault on the Red October Steel Plant, 23 October 1942 from Osprey Stalingrad book
23 October German attack on the Red October Steel Plant with Soviets resisting in the background (image from ‘Stalingrad 1942’ by Peter Antill © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

By November 19, it was the Soviets’ turn. 

That was the day Operation Uranus opened, followed a week later by Operation Mars – an action Beevor concludes must have been a diversionary attack.

The plan was the encirclement of the Axis forces at great distance from the city, more than 150 miles at the furthest point, by two vast Soviet armies. 

They struck far from the city for two reasons: firstly, to prevent the redeployment of formidable German Panzer units engaged in Stalingrad, units that might block the Soviet attack; secondly, so that Axis units being hit were weaker Romanian ones. These divisions were stretched out over wide fronts and were under-equipped, lacking sufficient anti-tank weapons.

As it turned out, Mars was far less successful than Uranus, and other operations were required to take on German forces further down the Caucasus. 

Overall though, the scheme worked well. It trapped 6 Army within Stalingrad while its rations ran low and the harsh winter played out. 

The Germans attempted a counterstroke without success, as well as air bridges meant to re-supply 6 Army within the Kessel, the ‘pocket’ or ‘cauldron’. 

Soviet counter attack Stalingrad Osprey book
A portion of a map of the battle which shows Stalingrad bypassed and encircled (in red) as a result of the Soviet counterattack (image from ‘Stalingrad 1942’ by Peter Antill © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Neither worked, and by January 23, 1943, Soviet forces were closing in on Gumrak Airfield, from which the final flights of German JU-52 airplanes were taking off. 

These carried selected members from sub-units across 6 Army. The hope was for the entire army to be rebuilt at some point around the seeds of these few survivors - a kind of human Noah’s Ark.

For those left behind, their fates were more or less sealed. They either died fighting on, were killed by the harsh conditions, or became POWs. Final German resistance crumbled in early February, 1943. The newly promoted General Field Marshal Paulus surrendered at the end of January. 

Unlike most of his subordinates, he would survive captivity. Of the 91,000 German troops taken alive, only 5 or 6,000 would make it home, and only then in 1955. 

Survival rates were determined by rank, with 95 percent of NCOs and enlisted men dying in captivity while that same number of senior officers survived. This was thanks largely to better rations during the final weeks and months of the campaign, and to better treatment by the enemy. (Despite their communism, it seems the Soviets could be hierarchical too). 

For their part, junior officers had a 55 percent chance of surviving as POWs in the Soviet Union.

Beevor puts Red Army losses for the whole Stalingrad campaign at 1.1 million total casualties, almost 500,000 of which were fatalities. German, or rather Axis, losses (i.e. including Romanian, Italian etc) also came to a total of about 500,000 for the entire campaign. 

For his part, Clodfelter says one estimate has put the total dead on both sides at 1,109,000, of which 209,000 were German. Though he points to official records as having said that both sides probably sustained fewer dead than this: 485,751 for the Soviets (which is more than Britain sustained for the entire war) and 147,000 for the Germans. Russian civilian deaths amounted to 200,000, he says.

After the war, Paulus testified against the Nazis during the Nuremberg trials, though he wasn’t actually released from Soviet captivity until the 1950s. His Romanian wife had died while he was still in prison, and Paulus himself would die in 1957. 

Vasily Zaitsev survived the Battle of Stalingrad too, though his vision was seriously damaged by a mortar in January of 1943. Fortunately, a surgeon saved his eyes, and he returned to duty, participating in the Battle of Seelow Heights, part of the Soviet drive into Berlin in 1945.

Zaitsev became an engineer after the war and rose to be a director in a textile factory. He’d become a Communist Party member during the war and he would die in 1991, eleven days before the USSR ceased to exist.

In summing up Stalingrad, and Operation Barbarossa more generally, it is worth considering another metaphor derived from a tale referred to in Beevor’s book. 

This is the 1886 story ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’, by Russian writer Leo Tolstoy.

The man in this case is named Pahom. He goes east of the Volga because he has heard that a simple people called the Bashkirs will allow him to take as much land as he wants for only 1,000 roubles. He is limited only by the amount of land he can walk around in a day.

Holding them in contempt, Pahom sets off to acquire as much as he can from the Bashkirs, taking in a nice pond and a field for flax seeds during his enormous circuit.

Then the sun starts to dip, and Pahom must race back to the starting point or risk losing everything he has acquired. He gets back in time, but the rush causes him so much strain that he dies on the spot where he started. It turns out that the only land he ever required was the six-foot plot used to bury him.

Beevor points out that Hitler must have either never read or didn’t learn anything from Tolstoy’s story. 

And because of this, it seems he wasn’t only a modern Macbeth, but also another Pahom too.

For more on the Battle of Stalingrad read Anthony Beevor’s ‘Stalingrad’. Look at ‘Stalingrad 1942’ by Peter Antill for an illustrated guide to the campaign, and read ‘German Soldier vs Soviet Soldier: Stalingrad 1942-43’ by Chris McNab for a soldier’s eye-view of the battle. Visit Osprey Publishing for more military history.

Wheat image by Raymond Spekking; image of General Friedrich Paulus from the German Federal Archives and Greater Germanic Reich map by Hayden120.

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