the battle of stalingrad -- 11/12/14

Today's selection -- from A History of War in 100 Battles by Richard Overy. In the final analysis, World War II can be best understood as a war between Germany and the Soviet Union. Those two countries suffered by far the most casualties -- estimated to have been over 7 million in Germany and as high as 26 million in the Soviet Union (as compared to 405,000 Americans). This was epitomized by the Battle of Stalingrad (modern day Volgograd on the Volga River in southern Russia), which with over 400,000 deaths, was one of the bloodiest battles in the history of the world:

"Stalingrad was one of the longest battles of the Second World War and the bloodiest. It has rightly come to symbolize the epic struggle between the German armed forces and the Red Army. It was regarded at the time as a turning point in the war against the Axis states. ... Men on both sides were pushed to the limits of endurance and beyond. More than 400,000 lost their lives in the effort.

German dead in the city

"Neither side had predicted the battle. Hitler decided to open his summer campaign in the south of Russia in 1942, and detailed his forces to capture the Caucasus oilfields and cut the Volga river link with northern Russia around the city of Stalingrad. ...

"[Overwhelmed, outnumbered, and] under constant bombardment, [the Red Army] fought in many cases to the death. A few weeks before, Stalin had issued Order number 277 'Not a Step Back', by which any retreat or withdrawal was to be treated as cowardice.

"On 7 September the Soviet commander in the city, General Alexander Lopatin, did order a withdrawal and was promptly sacked. He was replaced by General Vasily Chuikov, a tough, brave, no-nonsense commander, who shared the hardships of his men and risked his life over and over again. The Stalingrad front was placed under General Andrei Yeremenko, who, like Chuikov, was a tough commander who was wounded seven times during the battle, but continued to command from his hospital bed. ...

"The courage of the Soviet defenders was exceptional. Some failed to cope and it is claimed that over 13,000 were shot for desertion or dereliction of duty. For the rest Stalingrad became a symbol for which they were prepared to give their lives. Chuikov bullied his men but he also inspired them. They became adept at the art of street fighting, a form of urban guerrilla warfare that has become familiar since 1945, but which had not yet been seen in the war. ...

Soviet soldiers attack a house, February 1943

"Unknown to either side in Stalingrad, the Soviet high command had devised a way to end the battle. In September General Zhukov, Stalin's deputy, and the chief-of-staff, Alexander Vasilevski, drew up a plan to cut across the long, exposed Axis flank, strike at the weaker Italian and Romanian divisions, and encircle the 6th Army, cutting it off from effective rescue. It was a bold plan but Stalin accepted it and agreed to use all the reserves to build up, in complete secrecy, a force of over 1 million men, 14,000 guns and 979 tanks on either side of the long Axis flanks. German intelligence failed to detect it. The whole plan depended on the ability of Chuikov to keep his small and battered force fighting for the month it took to organize the counter-strike. ...

"Chuikov's small force had done enough. On 19 November the counterstrike, Operation Uranus, began. The weaker Axis divisions crumbled and within five days the two prongs of the Soviet attack met at Kalach on the Don Steppe. Paulus was encircled with 330,000 of his men. Hitler refused to allow him to break out and an attempt by Field Marshal Erich von Manstein to drive through the Soviet lines to rescue the 6th Army was too weak in deteriorating winter weather. The fighting resumed in Stalingrad, but this time it was the German army doing the desperate defending. ... On 31 January [1943] Paulus finally surrendered. German forces to the north of the city surrendered three days later. Famished, poorly clad and ill, the defenders trudged into captivity where most died on the route. The extraordinary courage of the Soviet defenders had made it possible to inflict the largest defeat the German army had ever experienced: 147,000 dead and 91,000 prisoners. For the final siege the Red Army paid with 485,000 dead, injured or missing."


Richard Overy


A History of War in 100 Battles


Oxford University Press


Copyright Richard Overy 2014


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