Stalingrad – What happened inside the cauldron

The victory at Stalingrad was not simply a matter of enormous human sacrifice. Source: Zelma/RIA Novosti

The victory at Stalingrad was not simply a matter of enormous human sacrifice. Source: Zelma/RIA Novosti

Courage, toughness and weapons were peripheral factors in the Battle of Stalingrad. It was the tactical superiority of the Russian soldier in a range of environments that was the key to the Russian victory.

“In order to defeat the Russian soldier, you must kill him. Then bayonet him. And then shoot the bastard – and only then you can be sure of your victory.” When Frederick the Great made that statement in the latter half of the 18th century, he was hardly influenced by Bolshevik propaganda. As one of the foremost generals of his time, the Prussian ruler’s assessment that the Russian soldier was the toughest was based on his battlefield observations of European armies and individual soldiers.

In 1941 when German armoured columns were tearing through Russia, US ambassador Laurence Steinhardt observed that anyone who knew anything about Russian history would hardly jump to the conclusion that the Germans would achieve an easy victory.

It was Stalingrad that reinforced the image of the tough Russian. General Vasilii Chuikov, whose 62nd Army was tasked with the defence of Stalingrad, writes in his memoirs, The Story of the Battle for Stalingrad, about the tough new guardsmen the Russians introduced into the battlefield: “These were really guardsmen. All of them were young and tall, and healthy, many of them in paratroop uniform, with knives and daggers tucked into their belts. They went in for bayonet charges, and would throw a dead German over their shoulder like a sack of straw. For house-to-house fighting, there was no one quite like them. They would attack in small groups, and, breaking into houses and cellars, they would use their knives and daggers.”

According to Vladimir Belyakov, a former Russian diplomat, the entire edifice of the German strategy crumbled on November 19, 1942, under the heavy blows of the Red Army’s counteroffensive – Operation Uranus. The battle served as a turning point in the war because for the first time the Nazi leaders faced the prospect of a final defeat.

“The Soviet people paid a high price for the victory at Stalingrad, which, they say, was a modern-day Cannae,” writes Belyakov. “But even Cannae was never like this extended, exhausting fight to the finish. The Germans seemed to bring down all the iron of the Ruhr, Lorraine, Lapland and Biscay upon the narrow strip of land along the Volga: An average of 1,250 shell, bomb and mine fragments hit each yard of the land for which 800,000 Soviets gave their lives.”

Stalingrad was called “the contemporary Cannae” also because the encirclement there – the most formidable in the history of wars – emulated the skillful encirclement by Hannibal of 80,000 Roman legionnaires under the command of consul Emilius Paullus. Many centuries after that, German generals like Fredrich Paulus dreamed of a victory of such a scale, and believed only they were capable of doing that. “When the Red Army executed a pincer movement of their own around Paulus’s 330,000-strong Sixth Army (what ironic coincidence!), the Wehrmacht generals, taken by surprise, could not believe the Russians had outsmarted them.”

Prelude to Stalingrad

The stiff resistance offered by Russian soldiers, despite the complete lack of preparedness of their forward units in 1941-42, had surprised the Germans. In hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned battles – at the fortress of Brest-Litovsk on the western frontier, in Sevastopol, Odessa and Tula – the Soviets had displayed astonishing resistance that took a heavy toll on the German Army. “In retrospect, it is difficult to imagine Stalingrad as anything but a death trap for the Germans,” writes David Stone, professor of military history, Kansas State University, in the Journal of Slavic Studies.

Hell on earth

October 1942 was the gravest period of the war for both sides. As German soldiers poured into the city, Russian snipers shot them down by the hundreds, but the Germans kept flooding central Stalingrad. At one point the Germans came within two and half kilometres of Chuikov’s HQ.

As the Russians fought off the Germans, the 62nd Army’s command post, which was located near some oil installations, were set ablaze by German bombers. The burning oil poured across Chuikov’s trenches.

“At first we almost lost our heads,” Chuikov writes. “What were we to do? Then my chief of staff, General Krylov, gave the order: “Sit tight. Stay in the undamaged dugouts and keep up radio communications with the troops.”

The fire went on for several days, with nobody to douse it as all of Chuikov’s troops, including his engineers, were fighting the Germans. In the remaining dugouts, often under enemy fire, and with a massive blaze around them, Chuikov and his commanders somehow clung on to their bridgeheads. “We did not sleep for several days and nights,” he writes.

At this desperate hour, they could hear the Germans shout from their trenches: “Russ, skoro bul-bul u Volga.” (“Russians, you'll soon be blowing bubbles in the Volga.”).

The state of health of the leading generals reveals the extreme physical as well as mental hardships suffered by both sides. General Paulus was reduced to such a nervous wreck that the left side of his face developed a permanent twitch. His opponent, Chuikov, had a case of eczema so bad that both his arms were fully bandaged all the time.

Inside the cauldron

“The 14th of October marked the beginning of a battle unequalled in its cruelty and ferocity throughout the whole of the Stalingrad fighting,” writes Chuikov. “Three infantry and two panzer divisions were hurled against us along a five-km. front... There were three thousand German air sorties that day. They bombed and stormed our troops without a moment's respite. The German guns and mortars showered on us shells and bombs from morning till night. It was a sunny day, but owing to the smoke and soot, visibility was reduced to 100 yards. Our dugouts were shaking and crumbling up like a house of cards.

“By October 30 we began to feel that we were winning the battle. It was clear that Paulus was no longer able to repeat his October 14 offensive which brought us to the brink of catastrophe.

But it was not over yet. On November 11, the Germans launched their last major attack on the defenders of Stalingrad. Both sides knew it was now or never. In Chuikov’s words, “We fought for every brick and stone, for every yard of the Stalingrad earth.”

The Russians’ defensive strategies were bolstered by a massive spurt in weapons production and a superman effort to dispatch supplies across the Volga under constant bombardment. Chuikov writes in memoirs, “Our soldiers made sure they always had a proper store of grenades, mortar bombs, bullets and shells. They always said quite openly that they were prepared to tolerate hunger and cold, as long as they were not left without ammunition.”

More than mere heroics

However, the victory at Stalingrad was not simply a matter of enormous human sacrifice, writes professor Stone. It not only required winning the production battle with Nazi Germany, the Red Army also had to master the tactics of urban warfare.

But the Russians soon adapted brilliantly to the rigours of urban warfare. “Contrary to a picture drawn from German sources, Stalingrad shows the Soviet Army as analytical and innovative, understanding technology and employing resources effectively, and relying heavily on the initiative and flexibility of individual soldiers and junior officers,” writes Stone.

“The Soviets proved to be highly skilled at urban warfare. Given that fighting in cities requires great initiative and improvisation on the part of individual soldiers and junior officers, the Soviet victory further undermines the outdated conventional wisdom of stolid and faceless Russian soldiers.”

For instance, the Russian defenders faced the greatest threat from the Luftwaffe. They also observed that the Germans were not good at precision bombing. Chuikov, therefore, devised a tactic whereby the gap between the Germans and the Russians never exceeded “the distance of a hand-grenade throw”. This kept the Russian frontlines more or less immune from air attack.

Defensive offence

Two other factors worked very well for the Russians – artillery and snipers. The powerful fire of the guns and katyusha multiple rocket launchers from the east bank of the Volga caused havoc among German troop concentrations. In one instance, an entire German battalion was wiped out by one katyusha salvo.

Stalingrad was also the origin of the legend of sniper Vasili Zaitsev. A soldier with the Russian 248th Division from Siberia, he was so skilful a shot that in one 10-day period killed 40 Germans, each with a single shot.

Zaitsev was credited with 225 verified kills, 11 of them snipers. The snipers became a fearsome force within the Russian Army, and the soldiers he trained alone notched up 6000 confirmed kills, planting the seeds of panic within the German Army.

The myth of General Winter

German war memoirs often blame the Wehrmacht’s difficulties on the “Russian winter”. Many Western historians have lapped up such lies perhaps in a bid to take some off the shine from the Russian victory. But a majority of liars cannot turn a lie into the truth.

In fact, the Germans dispatches if studied impartially would shed some light on the role played by winter in the outcome of the war. For instance, General Heinz Guderian has gone on record, saying that in many sectors “there was no possibility of using motorised troops until the frost set in”.

Alexander Werth says in Russia at War – 1941-45: “Guderian’s argument that rain and mud interfered with the success of the first German offensive against Moscow seems futile, since it affected the Russians as much as the Germans; besides, Guderian himself admits it was the defence put up by the Russians, and not the mud that stopped him from capturing Tula, this key position on the way to Moscow.”

The Trap

In the larger war theatre, the defenders of Stalingrad were performing a role that the Russian brass wanted them to do – they were occupying German attention, while the buildup of troops on the German Sixth Army’s flanks continued. Unknown to the Germans, a new army group called the Southwest Front under Lieutenant General Nikolai Vatutin was established. As Chuikov said, “Time is blood.”

The Russian counterattack when it came broke the exhausted Germans’ back. American journalist Henry Shapiro gave a vivid account of that attack: “The steppe was a fantastic sight; it was full of dead horses, while some horses were only half dead, standing on three legs and shaking the broken one. It was pathetic, 10,000 horses had been killed in the Russian breakthrough. The whole steppe was strewn with these dead horses, and wrecked guns and tanks and trucks and half-tracks, and no end of Romanian and German corpses.”

Epic proportions

“Animals flee this hell; the hardest stones cannot bear it for long; only men endure,” wrote a German soldier, summing up his experience of the battle.

Stalingrad wasn’t just a battle; it ranks among the greatest episodes of human history. The scale of fighting was almost Homeric. There was bravery, there was brutality and there was cannibalism. In terms of the sheer loss of life and materials, and the extraordinary level of human endurance, perhaps only the Mahabharata, the ancient Hindu epic, can surpass Stalingrad.

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