battle of stalingrad

The single largest and the costliest exercise of Urban Warfare throughout all history till today is the battle of Stalingrad fought in Stalingrad (now Volgograd in Russia). This battle is also regarded as the turning point of the European Theatre of War in World War II as it marks the inception of the downfall of Nazi Germany and the Axis Powers.

The Second world war officially began when on 1st September 1939 Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Most of the world’s countries along with the great powers of that time fought with each other by segmenting into two groups – Axis Powers which included Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, Italy, Bulgaria, Rome etc. and the Allies Forces which included the UK, the USA, Soviet Russia, France etc. The war was fought worldwide between countries of each sect however, Europe saw the most devastation during this period. War in Europe occurred on several fronts: the Poland Invasion, the Nordic Front, the Western Front and the Eastern Front, amongst which the Eastern Front bore the major part of the combat. According to historians, more than 80 per cent of all combat during the Second World War took place on the Eastern Front. And it was led by the Soviet Russia.

Fought from July 1942 to February 1943, the battle of Stalingrad was the most important.

But first let’s answer the question –

Why was the Battle for Stalingrad important for both Germany and USSR? 

Stalingrad was one of the most crucial cities for the Soviets, due to its economic and geographical importance. It was a major industrial hub for manufacturing and during the war, it was converted into an ammunition and artillery manufacturing centre. Geographically it is situated on a big bend of the Volga River, making a major transport station on the shipping route during the war. Apart from that Stalingrad was also the namesake of Russia’s then leader Joseph Stalin and thus losing it would have affected the morals of the Soviet Army.

World War 2 Before the Battle of Stalingrad

Germany in 1941 started advancing into the Soviet Union starting the battle on the Eastern Front. Initially, the German Wehrmacht (the combined defence forces, i.e., the Heer-Army, the Kriegsmarine-Navy and the Luftwaffe -Air Force) were successful in capturing several provinces of Russia including Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic republics. It reached the border of Moscow, the Russian capital, in the winter of 1941 and tried to capture it, but failed to do so. By 1942 the oil reserves of Germany were depleting rapidly. To sustain itself Germany focused its efforts on moving deeper into Soviet territory taking the oil fields at any cost and attacking Stalingrad in Southern Russia. The initial objectives in the region around Stalingrad were to destroy the industrial capacity of the city and to block the Volga River traffic connecting the Caucasus and Caspian Sea to central Russia. Moscow however was anticipating another attack in that summer of 42 and redirected most of its force towards the capital, facing massive loss during German advancement towards Stalingrad.

Quick Glimpse At The Events Of The Battle of Stalingrad?

Germany formed Army Group South – A and B for their advancement into Southern Russia. The Army Group South B was advancing towards Stalingrad, which included the 6th Army and the 4th Panzer Army and was supported by the Axis armies of Romania and Hungary. 

The Soviet Red Army on the other hand deployed five army units in the city and nine in the outskirts. However, poor coordination and hasty deployment resulted in a massive number of casualties for the Russian side in the initial days.

German Heer (Army) and Russian Red Army were first contacted on the 17th of July in the outskirts of Stalingrad city at the bend of the Don river. On the Kalach region, the battle continued till late August. Soviet deployed four army units against the Germans, however, due to poor coordination and lack of planning they saw a casualty of almost 200,000 soldiers.

On August 23rd the Nazis reached near the city border after the retreat of the 62nd and 64th units of the Red Army and were ready to launch an offensive into Stalingrad. From then on, the Panzer Army started advancing into the city with 120 tanks and 200 armed personnel capturing the north of Stalingrad by 2nd September. Initial advancement into the city was successful for the Nazis due to the air support from Luftwaffe. On September 5th, 24th and 66th Red Army retreated and, on the 12th, Germans captured the railway station and the Volga River landing. From the 13th, the close-quarter urban warfare began. 

With adequate warning, the city of Stalingrad was evacuated of Food and ammunition supplies that were produced from the factories. The people were ordered to stay even the women and children. On the 22nd of July Stalin issued the infamous Order 227, which later came to be known as the “Not one step backwards” order. In the city, civilians were ordered to take arms and fight on the battlefield. Due to poor tactical support from Moscow, sometimes people have to fight without any rifles. Women and children were working to build trenches and protective fortifications. In some instances, women took hold of machine gun stations, fighting alongside the Red Army. Close-quarter fighting, sniper showdown, traps and ambush and sometimes hand-to-hand combat slowed down the Nazi advancements. However, this resulted in massive casualties and defined a new form of warfare that is most prevalent in today’s age which is urban warfare.

Reasons For Nazi Army’s Initial Success in Stalingrad 

One of the biggest reasons for the Nazi’s success in the advancement of Stalingrad is the constant air support from the Nazi Air division Luftwaffe to the ground troops. Since July the verdict of battles were heavily dominated by the Air attacks. During the early days of the attack in late July, Germanthe Suktas (Bonbers) sunk Soviet fleets from the Volga River cutting it from the supply line. In the city battle, it initiated carpet bombing, obliterating the city into rubble in a matter of days. Several accounts state that in the bombing of late August alone somewhere between 40-70 thousand people died and about 150 thousand people were wounded. By early September the bombers took down approximately 136 soviet artillery tanks, 77 fighter jets and several hundred thousand lives. With this intensity of the attack, the German bombers left with a very few amount of ammunition and the air raids decreased in late September. However, in mid-October with reinforcements, the air raids were again intensified. In July and early August, the Suktas used to carry out an average of 1343 missions per day. From 5 to 12 September, Luftflotte-4 conducted 7,507 sorties which is 938 per day and From 16 to 25 September, it carried out 9,746 missions which is 975 per day. In mid-October, this average again rose to thousands. On October 14th alone the Luftflotte-4 conducted 1225 raids dropping 550 tonnes of bombs on the city. Russian Air Force meantime was unable to provide support to the ground troops and resorted to flying in the night only.

Till late September the battle in the city was divided into fractions and shifted into the industrial district. The German advancement here was heavily slowed down due to the heavy fortification. With severe hardship, Germans reached to three main strongholds of the Red Army, the Red October Steel Factory, the Barrikady Arms Factory and the Stalingrad Tractor Factory. The Steel and the Arms factories were the most lethal of them all as the Russians were well hidden in the complex and rained terror on any German advancements. With heavy preparation and planning the Germans launched the most savage attack on 14th October with close coordination of Air troops. It destroyed the Tractor factory that day which was producing vehicles for war purposes till it was bombed by the Shuktas. It took the Germans by the end of October to capture the other two factories. This slowdown would inevitably cause the fall of the Nazis in the Stalingrad.

Journalist and War Correspondent Alexander Werth detailed a particularly brutal fight in the district:

This battle, unparalleled in its ferocity, lasted for several days. It was fought not for individual buildings, but for every step of a staircase, for a corner in some narrow corridor, for separate machine tools and for the passage-way between them, and for the gas-main. Not a single man in the division yielded an inch of ground in this battle. And if the Germans did succeed in capturing some particular spot, it indicated that not a single Red Army man had survived.

Fall of Axis Powers in Stalingrad

With November starting the Germans failed to capture the city completely, despite exhausting much of their energy in the city. On the very month the winter was taking hold in Russia and the Germans were completely unprepared for it. Forget about combat, it was difficult for the troops to navigate in the Russian winters, which caused the collapse of coordination in the Nazi army. With Germany focused on the city, its border and outskirts were guarded by the Axis forces such as the Romanian and Hungarian Army. On 19th November in Operation Uranus the Soviets took down the supporting Romanian Army on the bend of the Don river. Then one by one the Red Army started capturing the surrounding checkpoints to the city and pushing the 6th SS Army into the city, ultimately isolating them from Germany. Some 330,000 Axis personnel were surrounded, including Germans, Romanians, Italians, and Croatians inside the city of Stalingrad in the winter of 1942. Meanwhile, in Berlin, the high commands were urging Hitler to retreat from the city. But the Führer was adamant on capturing the city and ordered the troops to stay put. The Nazi Air Force was finding it incredibly difficult to provide support in the heavy snowfall and whatever little food supply was flown, was gunned down by the Soviets. In December Berlin launched Operation Stormfront and Operation Thunderclap to break out the Sixth Army. However, the troops were faced with heavily armed Soviets near the Don River.  Operation Little Saturn was launched by the Soviets countering German operations and by 23rd December Berlin abandoned any attempt to relieve the troops surrounded in Stalingrad.

Despite being abandoned the Nazi army in the city continued to resist the soviet advances. All through January the Nazi army split into three fractions and continued their siege. On the 22nd, 23rd and 30th, three times the Germans were asked to surrender but refused. On 31st January the southern pocket of the German siege was breached by the Red Army and the central pocket surrendered the same day. The northern pocket held out for two more days and surrendered on the 2nd of February at 4 AM. A message was sent to Berlin from the northern pocket of Stalingrad purposely omitting the customary exclamation to Hitler, replacing it with “Long live Germany!”. Officially the Soviets won the battles of Stalingrad that day. Some small fractions of Nazi soldiers were spread throughout the city, but they were eliminated by the end of the March.

Beginning of Hitler’s End

In the aftermath of the battle around 91,000 Axis soldiers were taken prisoners, 22 of whom were generals. Besides the mind-numbing human toll of Stalingrad, the Germans lost 900 aircraft, 500 tanks and 6,000 artillery pieces. The German public was not officially told of the catastrophic defeat until the end of January 1943. Hitler was so rocked by the disaster that on the 10th anniversary of the Nazis’ assumption of power in Germany on January 30, he didn’t deliver his usual radio speech. This loss was the first failure of the war to be publicly acknowledged by Hitler and regarded as the cause of the Axis’s fall in Europe. Soviet soldiers vowed to lay waste to Berlin as the Germans had Stalingrad.

And by May 1945, Stalin’s Red Army did exactly that.

By Subhakanta Bhanja

Subhakanta Bhanja is a multi-disciplinary writer with a passion for exploring the intersections of science, technology, and geopolitics. A Utkal University graduate with a background in Science, he brings a unique perspective to the world of writing, combining technical knowledge with an understanding of the political and social implications of new innovations.