On 2 February 1943, in what is considered the turning point of the Second World War in Europe, the final remnants of the German Sixth Army surrendered at the Battle of Stalingrad.
The city, originally called Tsaritsyn, was renamed Stalingrad, Stalin’s city, in April 1925, in recognition of Joseph Stalin‘s leading role in saving the city from the counterrevolutionary ‘Whites’ during the Russian Civil War. (The fact that Leon Trotsky was more instrumental in saving Tsaritsyn was quietly forgotten). Considered important because of its supply of oil, the symbolic significance of Stalingrad, bearing the name of the Soviet leader, soon outweighed its strategic importance.
‘Not One Step Back’
The Germans started their attack on Stalingrad, Operation Blue, on 28 June 1942. Led by the Sixth Army, Germany’s largest wartime army commanded by General Friedrich Paulus (pictured), the Germans were fully expecting a total victory as they pushed the Soviet forces back.
The swift German advance alarmed Stalin so much, he issued his infamous ‘Not One Step Back’ directive of 28 July, ordering execution for the slightest sign of defeatism. Behind the Soviet frontlines roamed a second Soviet line ready to shoot any retreating ‘cowards’ or ‘traitors of the Motherland’. As Georgy Zhukov, one of Stalin’s top generals, said, ‘In the Red Army it takes a very brave man to be a coward’.
By 23 August, the German advance had reached the outskirts of Stalingrad and, with 600 planes, unleashed a devastating aerial bombardment. Entering the city, the Germans, along with their Axis comrades, comprising of Italians, Romanians and Hungarians, fought the Soviets street for street, house for house, sometimes room for room. This, as the Germans called it, was rat warfare, where a strategic stronghold changed sides so many times, people lost count, where the front lines were so close one could throw back a grenade before it exploded, where snipers took their toll on the enemy, and where a soldier’s life expectancy was three days – if lucky.
Stalin charged Zhukov to defend the city and formulate a plan to repulse the invader. (It’s worth noting here the difference between Stalin and Hitler as military leaders. After a series of blunders earlier in the war, Stalin, although he always like to take the credit, learnt to defer and listen to the experts, men like Zhukov. Hitler however always insisted he knew best and only canvassed the opinion of others if they agreed with him.)
On 19 November 1942, the Soviet Red Army launched Zhukov’s meticulously-planned counteroffensive, attacking and sweeping in from two separate directions, a pincer movement. Within four days, the two-pronged Soviet attack had met in the middle and had totally encircled the beleaguered German forces. Their objective was achieved so quickly that the Soviet camera crews missed the moment, and battalions of soldiers had to re-enact the essential scenes for the benefit of the cameras.
The Soviets squeezed the 250,000 Germans and their Axis comrades tighter and tighter. As the feared Russian winter set in and temperatures dropped to the minus forties, starvation, frostbite, disease and suicide decimated the Germans. Medical facilities were, at best, crude.
On Christmas Day 1942, with the temperature at –25 degrees Fahrenheit, Paulus received a message from Hitler: ‘You should enter the New Year with the unshakeable confidence that I and the whole of the German Wehrmacht will do everything in our power to relieve the defenders of Stalingrad.’
Whether Paulus and his staff believed it and took any comfort from Hitler’s promise is doubtful. Either way reinforcements, although sent, were easily repulsed and the already hideous conditions only got worse. As one German officer put it, Stalingrad had become a ‘mass grave of the Wehrmacht’. Even the cats and dogs had fled the city. But the Germans refused, at this point, to surrender for fear they’d be executed by the Russians.
A few German planes did manage to land within the city and were able to get troops out amidst scenes of panic, with hundreds of men fighting for the few remaining places whilst being shot at by the Soviets. (On one of the last flights out, Paulus sent his wedding ring back to his wife. He hadn’t seen her since mid-1942 and would never see her again. She died in 1949).
Hitler continued to dictate strategy from far away in Berlin, waving his hand vaguely over a map with no sense of the reality on the ground, and sacking generals who’s opinion differed from his. Hermann Goering, his chief of the Luftwaffe, the German air force, promised Hitler that his planes could drop 500 tons of supplies each day into Stalingrad. But with Soviet antiaircraft guns and poor weather against them, only a fraction, perhaps up to ten per cent, got through. The starving Germans resorted to eating rats and raw horse flesh. Frozen German corpses and dead horses were piled up and used as sandbags.
On 24 January, Paulus requested permission to surrender: ‘Troops without ammunition or food. Effective command no longer possible. 18,000 wounded without any supplies or dressings or drugs. Further defence senseless. Collapse inevitable. Army requests immediate permission to surrender in order to save lives of remaining troops.’
Hitler refused, saying it was the Sixth Army’s historic duty to stand firm to the ‘last man’.
By 26 January 1943, however, the Sixth Army were trapped within two small pockets of the city. Despite the hopeless situation, Hitler still forbade surrender. On the 30th, the tenth anniversary of his coming to power, Hitler promoted Paulus to the rank of field marshal on account that no German field marshal had ever surrendered. On 31 January, however, Paulus did.
Hitler, 1,000 miles away, was furious. Paulus, he shouted, ‘could have freed himself from all sorrow and ascended into eternity and national immortality, but he prefers to go to Moscow … What is life? Life is the Nation. The individual must die anyway … What hurts me most, personally, is that I still promoted him to field marshal. I wanted to give him this final satisfaction. That’s the last field marshal I shall appoint in this war.’
As a Catholic, however, ‘honourable’ suicide was not an option for Paulus. Later, during captivity, he explained ‘I [had] no intention of shooting myself for this Bohemian corporal’ (referring to Hitler’s highest army rank during the First World War).
Over a million soldiers on all sides had died in the city; over 90,000 Axis troops were taken prisoner of war, including, much to Stalin’s delight, 22 German generals, many later paraded through the streets of Moscow. Up to half the prisoners died on the marches to the Soviet prisoner-of-war camps, and most of the other half died in captivity; only about 6,000 returned home on their eventual release in 1955; about six per cent of those captured during the battle of Stalingrad.
The Captive Field-Marshal
Friedrich Paulus was the Soviet Union’s highest-ranking capture of the war. Later, during 1943, the Germans offered a swap – Paulus for Yakov Dzhugashvili, Stalin’s son. (Stalin’s real name was Dzhugashvili). Yakov had been serving as a lieutenant in the Red Army artillery when, on 16 July 1941, within a month of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, he was captured by the Germans and taken prisoner. Stalin considered all prisoners as traitors to the motherland and those that surrendered he demonised as ‘malicious deserters’. ‘There are no prisoners of war,’ he once said, ‘only traitors to their homeland’. So, in response to the German offer, Paulus for his son, Stalin refused.
Following the failed assassination attempt on Hitler on 20 July 1944, Paulus, still a prisoner-of-war, became a leading opponent of Hitler’s Germany, even going so far to join the German anti-Nazi organization, the ‘National Committee for a Free Germany’. Based in the Soviet Union, it called on Germans to desert Hitler for the sake of Germany’s future and surrender.
Post-war, Paulus appeared as a witness for the prosecution at the Nuremberg Trials. After ten years of captivity, he was released in 1953, and settled in the East German city of Dresden, where he died 1 February 1957, aged 66.
See also summary of the Battle of Kursk.