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.