Stalingrad, Soviet Union January 31, 1943

On this date in 1943 Red Army staff officers arrived at German Sixth Army head­quarters in Stalin­grad (present-day Volgo­grad) to discuss sur­render terms for an invading enemy now bereft of ammu­ni­tion, food, effec­tive com­mand, and 150,000 men who belonged to the dead or missing. Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus’ defen­sive peri­meter had shrunk to 300 yards when he surren­dered his army, despite being ordered by Adolf Hitler to fight to the last man. When told of the army’s surrender, Hitler cried, “Paulus did an about-face on the thres­hold of im­mor­tality. The man should have shot him­self just as the old commanders threw themselves on their swords.”

The Soviet liquidation of the German Sixth Army and its Axis auxil­iaries, widely cele­brated in Allied media, prompted three days of national mourning and the clo­sure of all non­es­sen­tial busi­nesses in Germany. It also in­flicted lasting trau­ma on the German people, now turned sullen, depressed, and anxious for their nation’s future and for their own indi­vid­ual fate. Long term, the Battle of Stalin­grad was a turning point in World War II. Hitler would reach no farther into the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Army acquired a new sense of its bur­geoning power. The boost to Soviet morale was immea­sur­able, giving the Red Army im­petus six months later to resist Ger­many’s armed forces at the Battle of Kursk (almost 50 Ger­man divi­sions con­taining 900,000 troops, 10,000 artil­lery pieces, 2,700 tanks, and 1,860 air­craft) in the most bru­tal armored battle in his­tory (see photo essay below). For the third time in as many years, the mighty German Wehrmacht was stopped on the road to Moscow, the Soviet capital. The un­suc­cess­ful German assault on the bulge in Soviet lines around the city of Kursk in July 1943 marked the deci­sive end of Germany’s offen­sive capa­bil­ity on the East­ern Front and cleared the way for the great Soviet offen­sives of 1944–1945, cul­mi­nating in the capture of the German capital, Berlin, in May 1945.

As for Paulus and his Sixth Army, some 91,000 sur­vivors at Stalin­grad began a forced march to POW camps in Siberia. Half died on the way, and nearly as many in the camps, where the men were desig­nated “war cri­mi­nals.” Only about 6,000, including Paulus, returned home. During his Soviet cap­tivity the former field marshal became a vocal critic of the Nazi regime and was a wit­ness for the pro­se­cution at the post­war Nurem­berg Trials (1945–1946). Upon his repatri­ation in 1953 Paulus settled in the Soviet sector of Germany (German Democratic Republic), where he died at age 66.

After Stalingrad: Battle of Kursk, July 5–16, 1943, Rings Death Bell for Hitler’s Third Reich

Kursk, Russia, July 1943: German plan of attack

Above: Kursk salient (bulge) front lines and the Ger­man plan (Unter­nehmen Zita­delle; English, Opera­tion Cita­del) to elimi­nate the salient, thus increasing the oper­a­tional den­sity of German lines, July 4–17, 1943. The Russian city of Kursk, 280 miles south­west of Moscow, lies imme­di­ately to the left of the blue up and down arrows (Zentral­front on the map). The bulge sucked in huge numbers of opposing tanks and men, making it the arena for the greatest armored battle of World War II.

German tanks moving to Kursk salient, June 1943Battle of Kursk: German tanks take up positions in Kursk salient, July 1943

Left: German Mark VI Tiger IIIs and IVs on the move near Bel­gorod directly to the south and outside the Kursk salient, June 21, 1943. Their aim: penetrate and eliminate the Kursk salient.

Right: German tanks of the “Grossdeutsch­land Divi­sion” take up posi­tions in the Kursk sali­ent in early July 1943. The Gross­deutsch­land was con­sidered to be the pre­mier unit of the Ger­man Army, receiving equip­ment before almost all other units. The new Mark V Panthers model D that the divi­sion received on the eve of the Battle of Kursk were plagued by tech­ni­cal prob­lems, suf­fering from en­gine fires and mechan­i­cal break­downs, with many becoming disabled before reaching the battlefield.

Battle of Kursk: Soviet tanks move to engage enemy, Kursk salient 1943Battle of Kursk: Tiger I tank takes out a Soviet T-34, Kursk 1943

Left: Soviet armor advances to engage the enemy. The combined Voronezh and Steppe Fronts (Woronesh­front and Steppen­front on the map) deployed about 2,418 tanks and 1,144,000 men.

Right: A Waffen-SS Mark VI Tiger I tank scores a direct hit on a Soviet T‑34 medium tank during the Battle of Kursk, July 10, 1943. The high-velo­city 88mm gun the Tiger I mounted and the quality of its advanced optical sights allowed it to devas­tate targets at long range with great accu­racy. Reportedly it could place five rounds within 18 inches of each other at 1,200 yards.

Battle of Kursk: Soviet IL-2 attack enemy, Kursk 1943Soviet antitank riflemen take out enemy tank, July 20, 1943

Left: Soviet IL-2 combat aircraft attack an enemy for­ma­tion in the south­ern (Voronezh) sector of the Kursk salient, July 1943.

Right: Soviet antitank riflemen take aim at an enemy tank after the Battle of Kursk had wound down, July 20, 1943. The Battle of Kursk was the first battle in which a Blitz­krieg offen­sive had been defeated before it could break through enemy defenses and into its strategic depths. Indeed, the Wehr­macht had barely dented the Kursk salient when Hitler reluc­tantly aborted Oper­a­tion Citadel on July 13 following reports that the Western Allies had invaded Italy. The Battle of Kursk, it can be said, was the Soviets’ critical contribution to winning the war against the Axis.

The Battle of Kursk, July 1943