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, Novem­ber 1, 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. (The Leningrad 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

Stalingrad burns in aftermath of Luftwaffe attack, August 1942German soldier with captured Soviet submachine gun

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.

Soviet soldiers defend themselves amid Stalingrad ruinsSoviet soldiers in rubble of the Red October Steel Factory

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.

Captured German soldierGerman POWs, Stalingrad, 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 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 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.

Stalingrad: Death of a City