The Battle of Stalingrad: Everything you wanted to know

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Heroic city defenders, talented Red Army commanders and even patriotic mice helped to defeat the Germans in Stalingrad. Find out just how they did it in our guide to the most important battle of World War II.

The bloodiest battle in human history, which took the lives of over a million people, was a watershed event for the entire course of World War II. The Red Army took the initiative and didn’t let it go until the very end of the conflict. How and at what price was this victory achieved? 

Road to Stalingrad

Battle of Stalingrad.

After the crushing defeat near Moscow at the end of 1941, the Germans could not conduct a simultaneous offensive on the whole length of the Soviet-German front, as was the case at the initial stage of ‘Operation Barbarossa’, and, instead, focused on the southern direction. On April 5, 1942, Adolf Hitler approved a plan dubbed ‘Operation Blue’, the main purpose of which was the capture of the rich oil fields of the Caucasus - at that time, they accounted for over 70 percent of all-Union production. 

In Spring 1942, the Wehrmacht held its positions in eastern Ukraine, preparing for a major summer offensive. Such a “campaign for oil”, however, could not be accomplished without reliable flank cover. Parts of the German forces, therefore, had to break through in the direction of the major industrial center and transport hub of Stalingrad and build a solid defense along the Don and Volga rivers. 

German troops near Maykop.

The Red Army itself played a major role in making these plans a reality in the end. On May 12, Soviet troops launched an offensive near Kharkov, which ended in complete disaster and the loss of over 200,000 soldiers. You can read more about the battle that dramatically weakened the Soviet defenses and increased the chances of the Wehrmacht successfully breaking through to Stalingrad here

On June 28, ‘Operation Blue’ began: troops advanced rapidly in two directions toward the Caucasus and Stalingrad, overcoming hundreds of kilometers and cutting off tens of thousands of Soviet soldiers from the main forces. Find out how the German “Blitzkrieg” found a second life in the south of the Soviet Union here.

Stalingrad in 1937.

On August 23, 1942, Stalingrad experienced a terrible bombing, which killed over 40,000 people and turned much of the buildings into ruins. See what the famous city on the Volga looked like before the war came.

The tragedy that befell the Soviet city that day brought it very close to British Coventry, which had also been devastated by bombing two years earlier. Read about how these two cities became the first twin cities in history. 

Hell on Earth

German infantry in Stalingrad.

Under the onslaught of Friedrich Paulus’ 6th Army and Hermann Goth’s 4th Panzer Army, Soviet forces were retreating toward Stalingrad. In mid-September, 1942, the Germans were drawn into fierce, bloody street battles in the city itself.

Gradually, from a secondary direction for Hitler, Stalingrad turned into a major target. Both sides persistently threw more and more forces into the “meat grinder” and the city became a real hell on earth. The recollections of eyewitnesses and letters from the front vividly testify to this.

Aerial view of a bomb being dropped on an industrial chemical plant in the city of Stalingrad.

Stalingrad was defended by General Vasily Chuikov’s 62nd Army. The commander staked on the creation of small in number mobile assault groups, which “gnawed into buildings and the ground and waited for the approach of the Nazis to throw a grenade” or penetrated into the rear of the enemy through underground tunnels, inflicting painful blows. Find out more about the role Chuikov played in the defense of the city on the Volga here

The main burden of the struggle, of course, lay on ordinary soldiers. Read detailed recounts of such heroic episodes of the Battle of Stalingrad as the defense of Pavlov House or the siege of ‘Lyudnikov Island’, when the 138th Infantry Division of Colonel Ivan Lyudnikov, pressed on the Volga and surrounded by the enemy from three sides, held the tiny plot of land near Barrikady plant for more than a month, here.

Soviet troops defending Stalingrad.

In addition to the Wehrmacht, the defenders of Stalingrad had to fight against another army - the “invisible” one. A cholera epidemic threatened to overwhelm the city and only through incredible efforts of the Soviet medics managed to avoid disaster. Read about how it happened here.

The great turning point

Despite the fact that the Germans captured most of Stalingrad, they failed to take the city completely before the onset of cold weather. The 6th army was still fighting hard in the city, when, on November 19, Soviet troops suddenly launched a large-scale strategic offensive dubbed ‘Operation Uranus’ and dealt a crushing blow to the flanks of the German grouping, which were covered by the weak Romanian units.

German POWs.

The Germans, hoping to avoid catastrophe, hurriedly threw reserves to the aid of the Allies. Surprisingly, even at that terrible time, it was not without curiosities. For example, the German 22nd Tank Division could not come to the rescue of the tattered 3rd Romanian Army because of… ordinary mice! Read about the feat of these patriotic rodents here.

On November 23, the ring of encirclement around the 330,000 Friedrich Paulus grouping was closed. However, the situation for the Nazis still did not seem catastrophic. Hitler ordered the 6th Army to hold in the city and, receiving supplies by air, to wait for help.

Friedrich Paulus in captivity.

On December 12, ‘Operation Winter Storm’ began - the troops of Army Group Don of Field Marshal Erich von Manstein rushed to break through the ring. Read about how close they were able to get to the city and why they were ultimately unsuccessful here.

The beast in the trap

By early 1943, the Germans had lost all chance of unblocking their encircled grouping, although many of Paulus’ soldiers still believed that Hitler would fulfill his promise and send help.

After surviving ‘Winter Storm’, defeating the Italian and Romanian allies of the Germans at the Don and pushing the enemy away from the city for hundreds of kilometers, the Soviet troops began the systematic liquidation of the “cauldron”. Read about how General Konstantin Rokossovsky's troops brilliantly accomplished Operation ‘Ring’ here.

Liberated Stalingrad in January 1943.

On the night of January 31, 1943, units of the 38th motorized rifle brigade of the 64th army broke through to the department store building in the center of Stalingrad, blockading it from all sides. It was here that the headquarters of Friedrich Paulus’ 6th Army was located. Learn more about all the circumstances of the capture of Field Marshal and about the further fate of the German commander and his role during the Nuremberg Trials. 

Two days later, on February 2, the last remaining German grouping of General Karl Strecker capitulated near the Stalingrad Tractor and Barrikady plants. This day marked the end of the most important battle of World War II.

The triumph on the Volga River was a result of the heroism of Soviet soldiers, the increased level of military art of the Red Army commanders and a number of mistakes of the German command. Read more about it here.   

It is difficult to overestimate the significance of the Soviet victory in Stalingrad: Nazi Germany and the military and political bloc of the ‘Axis’ countries had suffered a terrible blow, the member countries of the anti-Hitler coalition recovered their spirit and the Red Army firmly took the strategic initiative in the war into its own hands. Learn more about these and other consequences of the bloodiest battle in human history here

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