The Battle of Stalingrad (August 23, 1942 – February 2, 1943) was a major battle of World War II in which
Nazi Germany and its allies fought the Soviet Union for control of the city of Stalingrad (now Volgograd) in the southwestern Soviet Union. Marked by constant close quarters combat and disregard for
military and civilian casualties, it is among the bloodiest battles in the history of warfare. The heavy losses inflicted on the Wehrmacht make it arguably the most strategically decisive battle of
the whole war. It was a turning point in the European theatre of World War II–the German forces never regained the initiative in the East and withdrew vast military force from the West to reinforce
The German offensive to capture Stalingrad began in late summer 1942 using the 6th Army and elements of the 4th Panzer Army. The attack was supported by intensive Luftwaffe bombing that reduced much of the city to rubble. The fighting degenerated into building-to-building fighting, and both sides poured reinforcements into the city. By mid-November 1942, the Germans had pushed the Soviet defenders back at great cost into narrow zones generally along the west bank of the Volga River.
On 19 November 1942, the Red Army launched Operation Uranus, a two-pronged attack targeting the weaker Romanian and Hungarian forces protecting the German 6th Army's flanks. The Axis forces on the flanks were overrun and the 6th Army was cut off and surrounded in the Stalingrad area. Adolf Hitler ordered that the army stay in Stalingrad and make no attempt to break out; instead, attempts were made to supply the army by air and to break the encirclement from outside. Heavy fighting continued for another two months. By the beginning of February 1943, the Axis forces in Stalingrad had exhausted their ammunition and food. The remaining elements of the 6th Army surrendered. The battle lasted five months, one week, and three days.
By the spring of 1942, despite the failure of Operation Barbarossa to decisively defeat the Soviet Union in a single campaign, the war had
been progressing well for the Germans: the U-Boat offensive in the Atlantic had been very successful and Rommel had just captured Tobruk. In the east, they had stabilized their front in a line
running from Leningrad in the north to Rostov in the south. There were a number of salients in the line where Soviet offensives had pushed the Germans back (notably to the northwest of Moscow and
south of Kharkov) but these were not particularly threatening. Hitler was confident that he could master the Red Army after the winter of 1942, because even though Army Group Centre (Heeresgruppe
Mitte) had suffered heavy punishment west of Moscow the previous winter, 65% of its infantry had not been engaged and had been rested and re-equipped. Neither Army Group North or South had been
particularly hard pressed over the winter. Stalin was expecting the main thrust of the German summer attacks to again be directed against Moscow.
The Germans decided that their summer campaign in 1942 would be directed at the southern parts of the Soviet Union. The initial objectives in the region around Stalingrad were the destruction of the industrial capacity of the city and positioning forces to block the Volga River. The river was a key route between the Caspian Sea and northern Russia. Its capture would disrupt commercial river traffic of various commodities. It would also make the delivery of Lend Lease supplies via the Persian Corridor much more difficult.
The German operations were initially very successful. On July 23, 1942, Hitler personally rewrote the operational objectives for the 1942 campaign, greatly expanding them to include the occupation of the city of Stalingrad. Both sides began to attach propaganda value to the city based on it bearing the name of the leader of the Soviet Union. It was assumed that the fall of the city would also firmly secure the northern and western flanks of the German armies as they advanced on Baku with the aim of securing these strategic petroleum resources for Germany.
The Soviets realized that they were under tremendous constraints of time and resources and ordered that anyone strong enough to hold a rifle be sent to fight.
Army Group South was selected for a sprint forward through the southern Russian steppes into the Caucasus to capture the vital Soviet oil
fields there. The planned summer offensive was code-named Fall Blau (Case Blue). It was to include the German 6th, 17th, 4th Panzer and 1st Panzer Armies. Army Group South had overrun the Ukrainian
Soviet Socialist Republic in 1941. Poised in Eastern Ukraine, it was to spearhead the offensive.
Hitler intervened, however, ordering the Army Group to split in two. Army Group South (A), under the command of Wilhelm List, was to continue advancing south towards the Caucasus as planned with the 17th Army and First Panzer Army. Army Group South (B), including Friedrich Paulus's 6th Army and Hermann Hoth's 4th Panzer Army, was to move east towards the Volga and Stalingrad. Army Group B was commanded initially by Field Marshal Fedor von Bock and later by General Maximilian von Weichs.
The start of Case Blue had been planned for late May 1942. However, a number of German and Romanian units that were involved in Blau were then in the process of besieging Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula. Delays in ending the siege pushed back the start date for Blau several times, and the city did not fall until the end of June. A smaller action was taken in the meantime, pinching off a Soviet salient in the Second Battle of Kharkov, which resulted in the envelopment of a large Soviet force on 22 May.
The German advance to the Don River between 7 May and 23 July.
Blau finally opened as Army Group South began its attack into southern Russia on 28 June 1942. The German offensive started well. Soviet forces offered little resistance in the vast empty steppes and started streaming eastward. Several attempts to re-establish a defensive line failed when German units outflanked them. Two major pockets were formed and destroyed: the first, northeast of Kharkov, on 2 July, and a second, around Millerovo, Rostov Oblast, a week later. Meanwhile, the Hungarian 2nd Army and the German 4th Panzer Army had launched an assault on Voronezh, capturing the city on 5 July.
The initial advance of the 6th Army was so successful that Hitler intervened and ordered the 4th Panzer Army to join Army Group South (A)
to the south. A massive traffic jam resulted when the 4th Panzer and the 6th both required the few roads in the area. Both armies were stopped dead while they attempted to clear the resulting mess of
thousands of vehicles. The delay was long, and it is thought that it cost the advance at least one week. With the advance now slowed, Hitler changed his mind and re-assigned the 4th Panzer Army back
to the attack on Stalingrad.
Infantry and a supporting StuG III assault gun advance towards the city center.
By the end of July, the Germans had pushed the Soviets across the Don River. At this point, the Don and Volga Rivers were only 40 mi (64 km) apart, and the Germans left their main supply depots west of the Don, which had important implications later in the course of the battle. The Germans began using the armies of their Italian, Hungarian and Romanian allies to guard their left (northern) flank. The Italians won several accolades in official German communiques. Sometimes they were held in little regard by the Germans, and were even accused of some cowardice and low morale: in reality, their relative ineffectiveness in combat was due to their very scarce equipment, obsolete weaponry, and primitive tactics of Italian officers. Indeed they distinguished themselves in numerous battles, as in the battle of Nikolayevka.
The German 6th Army was only a few dozen kilometers from Stalingrad, and 4th Panzer Army, now to their south, turned northwards to help take the city. To the south, Army Group A was pushing far into the Caucasus, but their advance slowed as supply lines grew overextended. The two German army groups were not positioned to support one another due to the great distances involved.
After German intentions became clear in July 1942, Stalin appointed Marshal Andrey Yeryomenko as commander of the Southeastern Front on 1 August 1942. Yeryomenko and Commissar Nikita Khrushchev were tasked with planning the defense of Stalingrad. The eastern border of Stalingrad was the wide River Volga, and over the river, additional Soviet units were deployed. These units became the newly formed 62nd Army, which Yeryomenko placed under the command of Lt. Gen. Vasiliy Chuikov on 11 September 1942. The situation was extremely dire. When asked how he interpreted his task, he responded "We will defend the city or die in the attempt." The 62nd Army's mission was to defend Stalingrad at all costs. Chuikov's generalship during the battle earned him one of his two Hero of the Soviet Union awards.
On the 23 of August the 6th Army reached the outskirts of Stalingrad in pursuit of the 62nd and 64th Armies, which had fallen back into
the city. Kleist later said after the war:
"The capture of Stalingrad was subsidiary to the main aim. It was only of importance as a convenient place, in the bottleneck between Don and the Volga, where we could block an attack on our flank by Russian forces coming from the east. At the start, Stalingrad was no more than a name on the map to us."
The Soviets had enough warning of the Germans' advance to ship grain, cattle, and railway cars across the Volga and out of harm's way but most civilian residents were not evacuated. This "harvest victory" left the city short of food even before the German attack began. Before the Wehrmacht reached the city itself, the Luftwaffe had rendered the River Volga, vital for bringing supplies into the city, unusable to Soviet shipping. Between 25 and 31 July, 32 Soviet ships were sunk, with another nine crippled.
The battle began with the heavy bombing of the city by Generaloberst Wolfram von Richthofen's Luftflotte 4, which in the summer and autumn of 1942 was the most powerful single air formation in the world. Some 1,000 tons of bombs were dropped. Much of the city was quickly turned to rubble, although some factories continued production while workers joined in the fighting. The 369th (Croatian) Reinforced Infantry Regiment was the only non-German unit selected by the Wehrmacht to enter Stalingrad city during assault operations. It fought as part of the 100th Jäger Division.
Stalin rushed all available troops to the east bank of the Volga, some from as far away as Siberia. All the regular ferries were quickly destroyed by the Luftwaffe, which then targeted troop barges being towed slowly across the river by tugs. Many civilians were evacuated across the Volga. It has been said that Stalin prevented civilians from leaving the city in the belief that their presence would encourage greater resistance from the city's defenders. Civilians, including women and children, were put to work building trenchworks and protective fortifications. A massive German strategic bombing on 23 August caused a firestorm, killing thousands and turning Stalingrad into a vast landscape of rubble and burnt ruins. Ninety percent of the living space in the Voroshilovskiy area was destroyed. Between 23 and 26 August, Soviet reports indicate 955 people were killed and another 1,181 wounded as a result of the bombing. Casualties of 40,000 were greatly exaggerated and after 25 August, the Soviets did not record any civilian and military casualties as a result of air raids.
The Soviet Air Force, the Voenno-Vozdushnye Sily (VVS), was swept aside by the Luftwaffe. The Voenno-Vozdushnye Sily assembly in the immediate area lost 201 aircraft between 23 and 31 August, and despite meager reinforcements of some 100 aircraft in August, it was left with just 192 serviceable aircraft, 57 of which were fighters. The Soviets continued to pour aerial reinforcements into the Stalingrad area in late September, but continued to suffer appalling losses; the Luftwaffe had complete control of the skies.
The burden of the initial defense of the city fell on the 1077th Anti-Aircraft Regiment a unit made up mainly of young female volunteers who had no training for engaging ground targets. Despite this, and with no support available from other units, the AA gunners stayed at their posts and took on the advancing panzers. The German 16th Panzer Division reportedly had to fight the 1077th's gunners "shot for shot" until all 37 anti-aircraft guns were destroyed or overrun. The German 16th Panzer Division was shocked to find that, due to Soviet manpower shortages, it had been fighting female soldiers. In the early stages of the battle, the NKVD organized poorly armed "Workers' militias" composed of civilians not directly involved in war production for immediate use in the battle. The civilians were often sent into battle without rifles. Staff and students from the local technical university formed a "tank destroyer" unit. They assembled tanks from leftover parts at the tractor factory. These tanks, unpainted and lacking gunsights, were driven directly from the factory floor to the front line. They could only be aimed at point blank range through the gun barrel.
By the end of August, Army Group South (B) had finally reached the Volga, north of Stalingrad. Another advance to the river south of the city followed. By 1 September, the Soviets could only reinforce and supply their forces in Stalingrad by perilous crossings of the Volga under constant bombardment by artillery and aircraft.
On 5 September, the Soviet 24th and 66th Armies organized a massive attack against XIV Panzer Corps. The Luftwaffe helped repulse the offensive by heavily attacking Soviet artillery positions and defensive lines. The Soviets were forced to withdraw at midday after only a few hours. Of the 120 tanks the Soviets had committed, 30 were lost to air attack.
Soviet operations were constantly hampered by the Luftwaffe. On 18 September, the Soviet 1st Guards and 24th Army launched an offensive
against VIII Army Corps at Kotluban. VIII. Fliegerkorps dispatched wave after wave of Stuka dive-bombers to prevent a breakthrough. The offensive was repulsed. The Stukas claimed 41 of the 106 Soviet
tanks knocked out that morning, while escorting Bf 109s destroyed 77 Soviet aircraft. Amid the debris of the wrecked city, the Soviet 62nd and 64th Armies, which included the Soviet 13th Guards Rifle
Division, anchored their defense lines with strongpoints in houses and factories.
Fighting within the ruined city was fierce and desperate. Lieutenant General Alexander Rodimtsev was in charge of the 13th Guards Rifle Division, and received one of two Heroes of the Soviet Union awarded during the battle for his actions. Stalin's Order No. 227 of 27 July 1942 decreed that all commanders who ordered unauthorized retreat would be subject to a military tribunal. "Not a step back!" and "There is no land behind the Volga!" were the slogans. The Germans pushing forward into Stalingrad suffered heavy casualties.
By 12 September, at the time of their retreat into the city, the Soviet 62nd Army had been reduced to 90 tanks, 700 mortars and just
20,000 personnel. The remaining tanks were used as immobile strongpoints within the city. The initial German attack attempted to take the city in a rush. One infantry division went after the Mamayev
Kurgan, one attacked the central rail station and one attacked toward the central landing stage on the Volga.
Though initially successful, the German attacks stalled in the face of Soviet reinforcements brought in from across the Volga. The 13th Guards Rifle Division, assigned to counterattack at the Mamayev Kurgan and at Railway Station No. 1 suffered particularly heavy losses. Over 30 percent of its soldiers were killed in the first 24 hours, and just 320 out of the original 10,000 survived the entire battle. Both objectives were retaken, but only temporarily. The railway station changed hands 14 times in six hours. By the following evening, the 13th Guards Rifle Division had ceased to exist.
Combat raged for three days at the giant grain elevator in the south of the city. About fifty Red Army defenders, cut off from resupply,
held the position for five days and fought off ten different assaults before running out of ammunition and water. Only forty dead Soviet fighters were found, though the Germans had thought there were
many more due to the intensity of resistance. The Soviets even burned heaps of grain during their retreat in order to deny the enemy food. Paulus chose the grain elevator and silos as the symbol of
Stalingrad for a patch he was having designed to commemorate the battle after a German victory.
German military doctrine was based on the principle of combined-arms teams and close cooperation between tanks, infantry, engineers, artillery and ground-attack aircraft. Some Soviet commanders adopted the tactic of always keeping the front lines as close to the Germans as physically possible; Chuikov called this "hugging" the Germans. This slowed the German advance and reduced the effectiveness of the German advantage in supporting fire.
The Red Army gradually adopted a strategy to hold for as long as possible all the ground in the city. Thus, they converted multi-floored
apartment blocks, factories, warehouses, street corner residences and office buildings into a series of well defended strongpoints with small 5–10 man units. Manpower in the city was constantly
refreshed by bringing additional troops over the Volga. When a position was lost, an immediate attempt was usually made to re-take it with fresh forces.
Bitter fighting raged for every ruin, street, factory, house, basement, and staircase. Even the sewers were the sites of firefights. The Germans, calling this unseen urban warfare Rattenkrieg ("Rat War") bitterly joked about capturing the kitchen but still fighting for the living room and the bedroom. Buildings had to be cleared room by room through the bombed-out debris of residential neighborhoods, office blocks, basements and apartment high-rises. Some of the taller buildings, blasted into roofless shells by earlier German aerial bombardment, saw floor-by-floor, close quarters combat, with the Germans and Soviets on alternate levels, firing at each other through holes in the floors.
Fighting on and around Mamayev Kurgan, a prominent hill above the city, was particularly merciless; indeed, the position changed hands many times.
In another part of the city, a Soviet platoon under the command of Sergeant Yakov (Jakob) Pavlov fortified a four-story building that oversaw a square 300 yards from the river bank, later called Pavlov's House. The soldiers surrounded it with minefields, set up machine-gun positions at the windows and breached the walls in the basement for better communications. The soldiers found about ten Soviet civilians hiding in the basement. They were not relieved, and not significantly reinforced, for two months. The building was labeled Festung ("Fortress") on German maps. Sgt. Pavlov was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union for his actions.
The Germans made slow but steady progress through the city. Positions were taken individually, but the Germans were never able to capture
the key crossing points along the river bank. The Germans used airpower, tanks and heavy artillery to clear the city with varying degrees of success. Toward the end of the battle, the gigantic
railroad gun nicknamed Dora was brought into the area. The Soviets built up a large number of artillery batteries on the east bank of the Volga. This artillery was able to bombard the German
positions or at least to provide counter-battery fire.
Snipers on both sides used the ruins to inflict casualties. The most famous Soviet sniper in Stalingrad was Vasily Zaytsev with 225 confirmed kills during the battle. Targets were often soldiers bringing up food or water to forward positions. Artillery spotters were an especially prized target for snipers.
For both Stalin and Hitler, Stalingrad became a matter of prestige far beyond its strategic significance. The Soviet command moved units from the Red Army strategic reserve in the Moscow area to the lower Volga, and transferred aircraft from the entire country to the Stalingrad region.
The strain on both military commanders was immense: Paulus developed an uncontrollable tic in his eye, which eventually afflicted the left side of his face, while Chuikov experienced an outbreak of eczema that required him to have his hands completely bandaged. Troops on both sides faced the constant strain of close-range combat.
Vasily Grigoryevich Zaytsev (Russian: Васи́лий Григо́рьевич За́йцев) 23 March 1915 – 15 December 1991) was a Soviet
sniper and a Hero of the Soviet Union during World War II, notable particularly for his activities between 10 November and 17 December 1942, during the Battle of Stalingrad; during this five-week
period he killed 225 soldiers and officers of the Wehrmacht and other Axis armies, including 11 enemy snipers.
Prior to 10 November, he had already killed 32 Axis soldiers with the standard-issue Mosin–Nagant rifle effective range of 900 meters. Between October 1942 and January 1943, Zaytsev made an estimated 400 kills, some of which were over 1000 meters.
In 2001, a feature length film, Enemy at the Gates, starring Jude Law as Zaytsev, was based on part of William Craig's book Enemy at the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad, which includes a "sniper's duel" between Zaytsev and a Wehrmacht sniper school director, Major Erwin König. Zaytsev himself indicates in his own memoirs that a three-day duel did indeed occur and that the sniper he killed was the head of a sniper school near Berlin. However, there is no evidence that any Major Erwin König ever existed, despite the claim made by the Armed Forces Museum of Moscow that they are in possession of his telescopic sight.