Along the Eastern Front · June 28, 1942

On this date in 1942 on the Eastern Front, Adolf Hitler launched Ger­many’s second sum­mer cam­paign against the Soviet Union in two years. (The first had been Opera­tion Bar­ba­rossa begun the previous June, which had been intended to knock the Soviet Union out of the war in 1941.) Ignoring the Soviet capi­tal Moscow, whose fierce defense com­bined with a brutal win­ter had pre­vented its cap­ture earlier in the year, Fall Blau (Operation Blue in English) was in­stead directed south toward the stra­tegic Cau­casus oil and mineral fields and important centers of Soviet war industry.

The German armored advance resembled a knife slicing through a stick of butter—a re­run it seemed of the sum­mer of 1941, when the Red Army fell apart on the first armored impact. Making steady pro­gress across the empty Ukrai­nian steppes, Army Group South (A) took the key rail­way junc­tion and river port Rostov-on-Don on July 23, and then drove south to the oil­fields in the Cau­casus. On August 23 Gen. Fried­rich Paulus’ Sixth Army, part of Army Group South (B), entered the out­skirts of Stalin­grad (today’s Volgo­grad), a vital manu­fac­turing and trans­port cen­ter up­stream from Rostov that bore the name of Hitler’s most hated enemy. That same day a mas­sive Ger­man air raid on Stalin­grad caused a fire­storm that killed thou­sands of civil­ians and turned the city of 900,000 res­i­dents into a land­scape of rubble and burned ruins. Unlike the German siege of Lenin­grad, most of the residents of the Soviet Union’s third-largest city were evacuated.

Neither Germany nor the Soviet Union could have fore­seen the horror that would face each other at Stalin­grad. Supposedly a walk­over, Paulus’ Sixth Army was inex­o­rably drawn into a Soviet quag­mire from which it was nearly im­pos­sible to escape. The 199‑day battle for con­trol of Stalin­grad pro­duced a monu­mental two million casualties on both sides. Stalin­grad was the worst defeat the Soviets in­flicted on Axis forces up to that time. Out of a million or more men in Axis uni­forms at the start of the Soviet counter­offensive in late Novem­ber 1942, just 105,000 starved, half-frozen enemy pri­soners, including 23 generals, were led away, most to their deaths. Only 6,000 POWs lived through their ordeal to return to their homeland after the war.

Stalingrad proved to be a major turning point in the Euro­pean war, and for the first time the West­ern Allies began to hope the Soviets might tri­umph in their tita­nic con­fron­ta­tion with the Nazi in­vaders. Smelling blood, U.S. Presi­dent Franklin D. Roos­evelt announced at the con­clu­sion of the Casa­blanca Con­fer­ence in Morocco between himself, British Prime Minis­ter Winston Chur­chill, and their joint chiefs of staff (January 14–23, 1943) that the Allies would require nothing less than Germany’s “unconditional surrender.”

Stalingrad 1942: Total War

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

Left: Hitler ordered his Wehrmacht (German armed forces) to take Stalin­grad and leave “not one stone atop another.” 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 caused by 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.

Battle of Stalingrad: Train station under attack, late August 1942Battle of Stalingrad: Bombed factory, November 1942

Left: A reconnaissance photo of a rail­way station burning in Stalin­grad, late August 1942. One rail­way station changed hands 14 times in six hours. The Germans killed 2,500 Soviet soldiers each day, day after day, three times their losses. Thousands of bodies were entombed in rubble and the stench was horrendous.

Right: German bombers flatten Stalin­grad’s indus­trial center, Novem­ber 16, 1942. The Luft­waffe retained air supe­ri­ority into early Novem­ber, but after flying 20,000 in­di­vidual sorties, its ori­ginal strength of 1,600 service­able air­craft had shrunk to 950. It shrank further following Allied landings in North Africa (Opera­tion Torch) in Novem­ber 1942, when Germans were forced to with­draw air­craft from the East­ern Front in an ulti­mately failed attempt to save Axis fortunes in the Mediterranean.

Battle of Stalingrad: Devastated factory-scape, September 1942Battle of Stalingrad: Aftermath, date unknown

Left: German infantry try to find cover in the wilder­ness of rubble that Stalin­grad had become. Photo from Septem­ber 23, 1942. Bitter fighting raged for every fac­tory, rubble-strewn street, house, base­ment, stair­well, and sewer. What the Soviets lost by day they regained by night. 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.

Right: Stalingrad’s shattered city center, date unknown but likely autumn 1942. The Battle of Stalin­grad bled the German Army dry and turned the war in the East deci­sively against Nazi Germany. With only minor inter­ruptions, the Red Army launched a two-year roll­back of the German war machine that ended in Berlin in May 1945. For the hero­ism of its defenders, Stalingrad was one of four cities awarded the title “Hero City” in 1945.

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

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