Stalingrad, Soviet Union • November 1, 1942
By one German count, over five million Red Army soldiers had been taken prisoner since Adolf Hitler unleashed Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union begun 16 months earlier. As for the number of Soviet service personnel killed and disabled, there was only a rough estimate, but clearly the Red Army had suffered near incomprehensible losses. Still, from the point of view of the German High Command, the Soviets were not defeated and were somehow continuing to resist. Indeed, on this date in 1942 five Soviet armies stood fixed in deep winter snow and ice between Stalingrad (present-day Volgograd), an industrial city that stretched 16 miles along the west bank of the Volga River, and two German armies, the Sixth and Fourth Panzer.
The Wehrmacht (German armed forces) had overcome the previous winter’s crisis when it failed to take Moscow, the Soviet capital, and now its forces on land and in the skies seemed ready again to defeat and annihilate dozens of Soviet divisions. After their first armored groups had reached Stalingrad’s suburbs at the end of June, the Germans appeared on the brink of capturing their first major Soviet city, which Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had vowed to defend to the last man. Hitler appeared to be mesmerized by the city that bore the name of his rival. Departing from the highly successful policy of Blitzkrieg (“lightning war”) employed in the first months of his war in the East, Hitler now committed his armies to one of attrition similar to the German military blockade of Leningrad (St. Petersburg) in the Soviet north begun in September 1941. (That siege was only lifted on January 27, 1944.)
Hitler’s decision proved to be disastrous for Gen. Friedrich Paulus’ Sixth Army and his Axis allies, who together numbered around 265,000 fighting men. Disastrous in large part because the Wehrmacht, for the second time in two years, was poorly prepared for a winter campaign in Russia. On November 19, 1942, the Red Army launched Operation Uranus, part of the ongoing Battle of Stalingrad (September 14, 1942, to February 2, 1943). The next day a second Soviet offensive kicked off south of Stalingrad, and by November 23 Soviet armies closed the ring around the city. German strength inside the ring was about 210,000. In the 11 weeks following this double envelopment, 105,000 surrendered; 35,000 escaped by air until that avenue was cut off; 60,000 died, committed suicide, or were unable to surrender when the end came; and roughly 10,000 men remained to fight on until exterminated (end of February). After Stalingrad, arguably one of the largest and bloodiest battles in history, the strategic advantage on the Eastern Front shifted to the Soviets, never to change.
Historic Turning Point: The Battle for Stalingrad, September 14, 1942, to February 2, 1943
Left: A massive German strategic bombing raid on August 23, 1942, caused a firestorm, killing thousands of Stalingrad residents and turning the city into a vast landscape of rubble and burned-out ruins. An estimated 1.7 to 2 million people on both sides were wounded, killed, or captured in the five-month Battle of Stalingrad.
Right: Carrying a Soviet submachine gun, a German soldier seeks cover among the ruins of an industrial area in Stalingrad. The Germans were assisted by Romanian, Italian, Hungarian, and Croatian soldiers, plus some 40,000 Soviet volunteers (Hiwis, short for Hilfswilliger), some of whom had been extracted from German POW camps.
Left: A group of Soviets prepares to ward off a German assault in Stalingrad’s suburbs. Fighting had degenerated into house-to-house, room-to-room, hand-to-hand combat. German soldiers bitterly complained that even though they had taken the kitchen, that still left the living room and bedroom to take.
Right: Soviet soldiers maneuver through the rubble of the Red October Steel Factory. Some soldiers found it easier to maneuver through underground sewers. Germans complained about this type of urban warfare, too, calling it Rattenkrieg.
Left: A Red Army soldier marches a German soldier into captivity. A handful of captured senior German officers was taken to Moscow and used for propaganda purposes, and some of them joined the National Committee for a Free Germany (NKFD), a German anti-Nazi organization that operated in the Soviet Union during the war. Some higher-ups, among them Paulus, whom Hitler had made Field Marshal hours before the German capitulation at Stalingrad, joined the NKFD and signed anti-Hitler statements that were broadcast to German troops. Paulus testified for the prosecution during the postwar Nuremberg Trials. He remained in the Soviet Union until 1952, then moved to Dresden in Communist East Germany, where he died in 1957, exactly 14 years after surrendering the German Sixth Army.
Right: German troops as prisoners of war, 1943. In the background is the heavily fought-over Stalingrad grain elevator. Out of the nearly 110,000 German prisoners captured in Stalingrad, only about 6,000 ever returned home. Already weakened by disease, starvation, and lack of medical care during their encirclement, they were sent on death marches (75,000 died within 3 months of capture) to POW camps and later to labor camps all over the Soviet Union. Some 35,000 were eventually sent on transports, of which 17,000 did not survive. Most POWs died of wounds, disease (particularly typhus), cold, overwork, mistreatment, and malnutrition.
Stalingrad: Death of a City