Outside Stalingrad, Southern Russia January 10, 1943

The contest between the German Wehrmacht (armed forces) and the Red Army for pos­ses­sion of Stalin­grad (August 23, 1942, to Febru­ary 2, 1943) proved to be the most stra­te­gically decisive battle on Ger­many’s Eastern Front and arguably of World War II. Known today as Volgo­grad, Stalin­grad (popu­la­tion 400,000) occupied the west bank of the Volga River, a major com­mer­cial artery to the north and the Urals to the east. It was quite naturally an impor­tant center of trans­ship­ment by rail and a cen­ter of heavy industry in South­ern Russia. For these reasons it attracted the attention of Adolf Hitler.

The first attacks on the city occurred in late summer of 1942 when Gen. Friedrich Paulus’ Sixth Army approached Stalin­grad from the west, ele­ments of Col. Gen. Hermann Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army approached the city from the south, and Her­mann Goering’s Luft­waffe bludgeoned the city from the air. Though the Ger­mans even­tually captured over 90 per­cent of the city, now reduced mostly to a rubble field, two small pockets of resis­tance and vicious street-to-street, house-to-house fighting prevented the Germans from claiming outright victory.

On November 19, 1942, the Soviets launched a four-day counter­offensive, code­named Opera­tion Uranus, which led to the encircle­ment of Paulus’ Sixth Army, por­tions of the Ger­man Fourth Pan­zer Army, and the Third and Fourth Roma­nian armies, which guarded Ger­man flanks. On Janu­ary 8, 1943, Red Army repre­sen­ta­tives under a flag of truce made Paulus an offer of honor­able capit­u­la­tion, guaran­teeing the lives, health, and safety of Axis POWs and their return after the end of the war. However honor­able the terms, Hitler nixed them, psycho­path­ically fixated on the city that bore his arch­enemy’s name (“I won’t leave,” he screamed) and conse­quently stubbornly blind to the wasted city’s diminished strategic significance.

Two days later, on this date, January 10, 1943, the Soviets launched Opera­tion Ring, tightening the deadly noose around a quarter-million Axis soldiers, low on food, ammu­nition, and morale. In bitter fighting the Soviets gradually pushed the enemy from the city center into a northern and a southern pocket. Paulus and his head­quarters (a depart­ment store base­ment) in the southern pocket ceased fighting on Janu­ary 31, and the northern pocket ceased organized resistance on February 2, 1943.

Significantly, the five-month Battle of Stalin­grad resulted in the destruc­tion of the entire Ger­man Sixth Army (400,000 men initially) and ele­ments of the Roma­nian Third and Fourth armies (158,854 soldiers killed, wounded, and missing), the Italian Eighth Army (20,800 soldiers killed and 64,000 captured), and the Hun­garian Second Army, which suffered 80 per­cent casual­ties. By con­trast, Soviet casual­ties were well over 1.1 mil­lion. So reduced was the Wehr­macht by its losses on its Eastern Front that the ini­ti­ative began to shift to the Soviets. By the end of year, 1943, following a string of vic­tories by a rejuve­nated Red Army and air force, it was clear that Nazi Ger­many would not only lose the war in the East but would also lose World War II.

Battle of Stalingrad, August 23, 1942, to February 2, 1943

Battle of Stalingrad: Stalingrad firestorm, late August 1942Battle of Stalingrad: Soviet snipers, October 1942

Left: Beginning on August 23, 1942, the Luft­waffe bombed Stalin­grad block-by-block for five straight days. Fire­storms killed any­where from 25,000 to 40,000 people. After August 25, the Soviets stopped recording civil­ian and mili­tary casu­al­ties as a result of air raids. The Luft­waffe also rendered the River Volga, vital for ferrying supplies into the besieged city, un­usable to Soviet shipping. Photo from late August 1942.

Right: Stalingrad’s desperate defenders realized that their best defense con­sisted of an­choring their defense lines in numer­ous buildings. Thus they con­verted multi­story apart­ment houses, fac­tories, ware­houses, corner res­i­dences, and high-rise office buildings into strong­holds bristling with ma­chine guns, anti­tank rifles, mor­tars, mines, barbed wire, sni­pers, and small 5–10 man units of sub­machine gun­ners and gre­na­diers pre­pared for house-to-house, hand-to-hand combat. The Ger­mans called this ever-present, often un­seen urban war­fare Ratten­krieg (“Rat War”). They bitterly joked about cap­turing the kitchen but still having to fight for the living room and the bedroom.

Battle of Stalingrad: Soviet soldiers defend themselves amid Stalingrad ruinsBattle of Stalingrad: Soviet soldiers in rubble of Red October Steel Factory

Left: A group of Soviets prepares to ward off a German assault in Stalingrad’s shattered suburbs. Prior to the Novem­ber 19, 1942, Soviet counter­offensive, Red Army and German soldiers sometimes fought for days over a few square yards of territory.

Right: Soviet soldiers crawl in the rubble of the Red October Steel Factory, the scene of fighting through much of the siege. The origi­nal German advance had almost over­run it and reached the Volga. The Red Army held. Later, as snow settled on the wrecked factory, the Soviets won it back.

Battle of Stalingrad: Captured German soldierBattle of Stalingrad: German POWs, 1943

Left: Bundled against the cold, machine gun in hand, a Red Army soldier marches an exhausted 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 sur­render 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 battle-weary 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.

Battle of Stalingrad: Death of an Army