Stalingrad

After the failure of Operation Barbarossa to win a decisive victory, Adolf Hitler decided to launch a new offensive in July 1942. General Friedrich Paulus, the commander of the 6th Army, was ordered to capture Stalingrad, a city that controlled the rail and waterway communications of southern Russia.

In the summer of 1942 Paulus advanced toward Stalingrad with 250,000 men, 500 tanks, 7,000 guns and mortars, and 25,000 horses. Progress was slow because fuel was rationed and Army Group A were given priority. At the end of July 1942, a lack of fuel brought Paulus to a halt at Kalach. It was not until 7th August that he had received the supplies needed to continue with his advance. Over the next few weeks his troops killed or captured 50,000 Soviet troops but on 18th August, Paulus, now only thirty-five miles from Stalingrad, ran out of fuel again.

When fresh supplies reached him, Paulus decided to preserve fuel by move forward with only his XIV Panzer corps. The Red Army now attacked the advance party and they were brought to a halt just short of Stalingrad. The rest of his forces were brought up and Paulus now circled the city. As his northern flank came under attack Paulus decided to delay the attack on the city until 7th September. While he was waiting the Luftwaffe bombed the city killing thousands of civilians.

Stalingrad was Stalin's city. It had been named after him as a result of his defence of the city during the Russian Civil War. Stalin insisted that it should be held at all costs. One historian has claimed that he saw Stalingrad "as the symbol of his own authority." Stalin also knew that if Stalingrad was taken, the way would be open for Moscow to be attacked from the east. If Moscow was cut off in this way, the defeat of the Soviet Union was virtually inevitable.

A million Soviet soldiers were drafted into the Stalingrad area. They were supported from an increasing flow of tanks, aircraft and rocket batteries from the factories built east of the Urals, during the Five Year Plans. Stalin's claim that rapid industrialization would save the Soviet Union from defeat by western invaders was beginning to come true.

General Georgi Zhukov, the military leader who had yet to be defeated in a battle, was put in charge of the defence of Stalingrad. As the German Army advanced into the city the Soviets fought for every building. The deeper the troops got into the city, the more difficult the street fighting became and casualties increased dramatically. The German tanks were less effective in a fortified urban area as it involved house-to-house fighting with rifles, pistols, machine-guns and hand grenades. The Germans had particularly problems with cleverly camouflaged artillery positions and machine-gun nests. The Soviets also made good use of sniper detachments deployed in the bombed out buildings in the city. On the 26th September the 6th Army was able to raise the swastika flag over the government buildings in Red Square but the street fighting continued.

Adolf Hitler now ordered General Friedrich Paulus to take Stalingrad whatever the cost to German forces. General Kurt Zeitzler, Chief of General Staff, was totally opposed to the idea urging Hitler to permit the Sixth Army to withdraw from Stalingrad to the Don bend, where the broken front could be restored. Hitler refused and on the radio Hitler told the German people: "You may rest assured that nobody will ever drive us out of Stalingrad."

When General Gustav von Wietersheim, commander of the XIV Panzer Corps, complained about the high casualty rates, Paulus replaced him with General Hans Hube. However, Paulus, who had lost 40,000 soldiers since entering the city, was running out of fighting men and on 4th October he made a desperate plea to Hitler for reinforcements.

A few days later five engineer battalions and a panzer division arrived in Stalingrad. Fighting a war of attrition, Joseph Stalin responded by ordering three more armies to the city. Soviet losses were much higher than those of the Germans, but Stalin had more men at his disposal than Paulus.

The heavy rains of October turned the roads into seas of mud and the 6th Army's supply conveys began to get bogged down. On 19th October the rain turned to snow. Paulus continued to make progress and by the beginning of November he controlled 90 per cent of the city. However, his men were now running short of ammunition and food. Despite these problems Paulus decided to order another major offensive on 10th November. The German Army took heavy casualties for the next two days and then the Red Army launched a counterattack Paulus was forced to retreat southward but when he reached Gumrak Airfield, Adolf Hitler ordered him to stop and stand fast despite the danger of encirclement. Hitler told him that Hermann Goering had promised that the Luftwaffe would provide the necessary supplies by air.

Senior officers under Paulus argued that they doubted if the scale of the airlift required could be achieved during a Russian winter. All of the corps commanders argued for a breakout before the Red Army were able to consolidate its positions. General Hans Hube told Paulus: "A breakout is our only chance." Paulus responded by saying that he had to obey Hitler's orders.

Throughout December the Luftwaffe dropped an average of 70 tons of supplies a day. The encircled German Army needed a minimum of 300 tons a day. The soldiers were put on one-third rations and began to kill and eat their horses. By 7th December the 6th Army were living on one loaf of bread for every five men.

Georgi Zelma, Stalingrad (1942)
Georgi Zelma, Stalingrad (1942)

Now aware that the 6th Army was in danger of being starved into surrender, Adolf Hitler ordered Field Marshal Erich von Manstein and the 4th Panzer Army to launch a rescue attempt. Manstein managed to get within thirty miles of Stalingrad but was then brought to a halt by the Red Army. On 27th December, 1942, Manstein decided to withdraw as he was also in danger of being encircled by Soviet troops.

In Stalingrad over 28,000 German soldiers had died in just over a month. With little food left General Friedrich Paulus gave the order that the 12,000 wounded men could no longer be fed. Only those who could fight would be given their rations. Erich von Manstein now gave the order for Paulus to make a mass breakout. Paulus rejected the order arguing that his men were too weak to make such a move.

On 30th January, 1943, Adolf Hitler promoted to Paulus to field marshal and sent him a message reminding him that no German field marshal had ever been captured. Hitler was clearly suggesting to Paulus to commit suicide but he declined and the following day surrendered to the Red Army. The last of the Germans surrendered on 2nd February.

The battle for Stalingrad was over. Over 91,000 men were captured and a further 150,000 had died during the siege. The German prisoners were forced marched to Siberia. About 45,000 died during the march to the prisoner of war camps and only about 7,000 survived the war.

Primary Sources

(1) William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1959)

A change in General Staff chiefs did not change the situation of the German Army, whose twin drives on Stalingrad and the Caucasus had now been halted by stiffening Soviet resistance itself. All through October bitter street fighting continued in Stalingrad itself. The Germans made some progress, from building to building, but with staggering losses, for the rubble of a great city, as everyone who has experienced modern warfare knows, gives many opportunities for stubborn and prolonged defence and the Russians, disputing desperately every foot of the debris, made the most of them. Though Halder and then his successor warned Hitler that the troops in Stalingrad were becoming exhausted, the Supreme Commander insisted that they push on. Fresh divisions were thrown in and were soon ground to pieces in the inferno.

Instead of a means to an end - the end had already been achieved when German formations reached the western banks of the Volga north and south of the city and cut off the river's traffic - Stalingrad had become an end in itself. To Hitler its capture was now a question of personal prestige. When even Zeitzler got up enough nerve to suggest to the Fuehrer that in view of the danger to the long northern flank along the Don the Sixth Army should be withdrawn from Stalingrad to the elbow of the Don, Hitler flew into a fury. "Where the German soldier sets foot, there he remains!" he stormed.

(2) Walter Warlimont was interviewed by Basil Liddell Hart about the invasion of the Soviet Union in his book The Other Side of the Hill (1948)

Hitler's operational plan for 1943 still showed traces of his original idea, namely to push forward on both wings and to keep back the central part of the front. In contrast to (the previous year he now shifted the centre of gravity to the southern wing. Plans of advancing on the northern front were shelved until the necessary forces became available.

The underlying idea was certainly fostered by the prospect of economic gains in the South, especially of wheat, manganese and oil. But to Hitler's mind it was still more important to cut off the Russians from these goods, allegedly indispensable for their continuation in the war, including coal from the Donetz area.

Thus he believed he could bring the Russian machine of war to a stand-still. No resistance against Hitler's plans ever came to my ears, though I firmly believe that the general trend of opinion was opposed to resuming the offensive, at least on such a large scale as foreseen by Hitler.

(3) In the winter of 1942 General Guenther Blumentritt was asked to visit the Eastern Front. His report suggesting a stepback from Stalingrad was rejected by Adolf Hitler.

I spent ten days in that sector and after returning made a written report to the effect that it would not be safe to hold such a long defensive flank during the winter. The railheads were as much as 200 kilometres behind the front, and the bare nature of the country meant that there was little timber available for constructing defences. Such German divisions as were available were holding frontages of 50 to 60 kilometres. There were no proper trenches or fixed positions.

General Halder endorsed this report and urged that our offensive should be halted, in view of the increasing resistance that it was meeting, and the increasing signs of danger to the long-stretched flank. But Hitler would not listen. During September the tension between the Fuhrer and Halder increased, and their arguments became sharper. To see the Fuhrer discussing plans with Halder was an illuminating experience. The Fuhrer used to move his hands in big sweeps over the map - 'Push here, push there'. It was all vague and regardless of practical difficulties. There was no doubt he would have liked to remove the whole General Staff, if he could, by a similar sweep. He felt that they were half-hearted about his ideas

Finally, General Halder made it clear that he refused to take the responsibility of continuing the advance with winter approaching. He was dismissed, at the end of September, and replaced by General Zeitzler - who was then Chief of Staff to Field-Marshal von Rundstedt in the West. I was sent to the West to take Zeitzler's place.

(4) After the war Albert Speer reported what Adolf Hitler said when he was told of the Red Army offensive at Stalingrad in November 1942.

Our generals are making their old mistakes again. They always over-estimate the strength of the Russians. According to all the front-line reports, the enemy's human material is no longer sufficient. They are weakened; they have lost far too much blood. But of course nobody wants to accept such reports. Besides, how badly Russian officers are trained! No offensive can be organized with such officers. We know what it takes! In the short or long run the Russians will simply come to a halt. They'll run down. Meanwhile we shall throw in a few fresh divisions; that will put things right.

(5) George Orwell, BBC radio broadcast (3rd October 1942)

The battle for Stalingrad continues. Since last week the Germans have made a little progress in their direct attacks on the city and savage house-to-house fighting is still going on. Meanwhile the Russians have launched a counter-attack to the north-west of Stalingrad which has made progress and must have the effect of drawing off some of the German reserves.

It is still uncertain whether or not Stalingrad can hold out. In a recent speech the notorious Ribbentrop, onetime ambassador to Britain and signatory to the Russo-German pact, was allowed to state that Stalingrad would soon be in German hands. Hitler made the same boast in his speech which was broadcast on September 10th.

Elsewhere, however, there has been a marked note of pessimism in German pronouncements and a constant emphasis on the need for the German people to prepare themselves for a hard winter and for an indefinite continuation of the war.

Hitler's latest speech was broadcast on September 30th. Although it mostly consisted of wild boasting and threats, it made a surprising contrast with the speeches of a year ago. Gone were the promises of an early victory, and gone also the claims, made more than a year ago, to have annihilated the Russian armies. Instead all the emphasis was on Germany's ability to withstand a long war. Here for example are some of Hitler's earlier broadcast statements: On the 3rd September 1941: "Russia is already broken and will never rise again." On the 3rd October 1941: "The Russians have lost at least 8 to 10 million men. No army can recover from such losses." He also boasted at the same time of the imminent fall of Moscow. That was a year ago. And now, on 30th September, the final boast upon which Hitler ended his speech was: "Germany will never capitulate." It seems strange to look back and remember how short a while ago the Germans were declaring, not that they would never capitulate, but that they would make everyone else capitulate. Hitler also uttered threats against saboteurs, a tacit admission that the German home front is no longer entirely reliable.

(6) Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich (1970)

Hitler now commanded units to be detached from all other sectors of the front and from the occupied territories and dispatched in all haste to the southern sector. No operational reserve was available, although General Zeitzler had pointed out long before the emergency that each of the divisions in southern Russia had to defend a frontal sector of unusual length and would not be able to cope with a vigorous assault by Soviet troops.

Stalingrad was encircled. Zeitzler, his face flushed and haggard from lack of sleep, insisted that the Sixth Army must break out to the west. He deluged Hitler with data on all that the army lacked, both as regards to rations and fuel, so that it had become impossible to provide warm meals for the soldiers exposed to fierce cold in the snow-swept fields or the scanty shelter of rums. Hitler remained calm, unmoved and deliberate, as if bent on showing that Zeitzler's agitation was a psychotic reaction in the face of danger. 'The counterattack from the south that I have ordered will soon relieve Stalingrad. That will recoup the situation. We have been in such positions often before, you know. In the end we always had the problem in hand again." He gave orders for supply trains to be dispatched right behind the troops deploying for the counteroffensive, so that as soon as Stalingrad was relieved something could at once be done about alleviating the plight of the soldiers. Zeitzler disagreed, and Hitler let him talk without interrupting. The forces provided for the counterattack were too weak, Zeitzler said. But if they could unite successfully with a Sixth Army that had broken out to the west, they would then be able to establish new positions farther to the south. Hitler offered counter arguments, but Zeitzler held to his view. Finally, after the discussion had gone on for more than half an hour. Hitler's patience snapped: "Stalingrad simply must be held. It must be; it is a key position. By breaking traffic on the Volga at that spot, we cause the Russians the greatest difficulties."

(7) Wilhelm Hoffmann, 267th Infantry Regiment, 94th Infantry Division, diary entry in Stalingrad on 26th December 1942.

The horses have already been eaten. I would eat a cat; they say its meat is tasty. The soldiers look like corpses or lunatics. They no longer take cover from Russian shells; they haven't the strength to walk, run away and hide.

(8) William Joyce, Germany Calling (16th January, 1943)

The extent of the enemy's sacrifices has been colossal and cannot be maintained. In the Stalingrad Sector, above all, the Soviets have been employing heavy forces and their losses have been proportionately high. Day after day, more Soviet tank losses have been reported and at the same time, the ratio between the German and Soviet air losses is incomparably in favour of the Luftwaffe. For example, it was reported yesterday that sixty-seven Soviet aircraft had been shot down as against four German losses; on Tuesday, the ratio was fifty-two to one in our favour. As might be expected, the Luftwaffe's superiority has dealt a hard blow at the enemy and it is now reported that the Soviets are being compelled to use untrained personnel in their larger bombers.

(9) Friedrich Paulus, radio message to Adolf Hitler (24th January 1943)

Troops without ammunition or food. Effective command no longer possible. 18,000 wounded without any supplies or dressings or drugs. Further defence senseless. Collapse inevitable. Army requests immediate permission to surrender in order to save lives of remaining troops.

(10) Adolf Hitler, radio message to Friedrich Paulus (24th January 1943)

Surrender is forbidden. Sixth Army will hold their positions to the last man and the last round and by their heroic endurance will make an unforgettable contribution toward the establishment of a defensive front and the salvation of the Western world.

(11) Hermann Goering, radio broadcast on Stalingrad (24th January 1943)

A thousand years hence Germans will speak of this battle with reverence and awe, and will remember that in spite of everything Germany's ultimate victory was decided there. In years to come it will be said of the heroic battle on the Volga. When you come to Germany, say that you have seen us lying at Stalingrad, as our honour and our leaders ordained that we should, for the greater glory of Germany.

(12) Friedrich Paulus, radio message to Adolf Hitler (31st January 1943)

The Sixth Army, true to their oath and conscious of the lofty importance of their mission, have held their position to the last man and the last round for Führer and Fatherland unto the end.

(13) German stenographic record of what Adolf Hitler said at a meeting with his generals on 1st February 1943.

He'll be brought to Moscow - and imagine that rat-trap there. There he will sign anything. He'll make confessions, make proclamations - you'll see. They will now walk down the slope of spiritual bankruptcy to its lowest depths. You'll see - it won't be a week before Seydlitz and Schmidt and even Paulus are talking over the radio.

They are going to be put into the Liublanka, and there the rats will eat them. How can they be so cowardly? I don't understand it. What is life? Life is the Nation. The individual must die anyway. Beyond the life of the individual is the Nation. But how can anyone be afraid of this moment of death, with which he can free himself from this misery, if his duty doesn't chain him to this Vale of Tears.

So many people have to die, and then a man like that besmirches the heroism of so many others at the last minute. He could have freed himself from all sorrow and ascended into eternity and national immortality, but he prefers to go to Moscow!

What hurts me most, personally, is that I still promoted him to field-marshal. I wanted to give him this final satisfaction. That's the last field-marshal I shall appoint in this war.

(14) Official German radio broadcast on 3rd February 1943.

The battle of Stalingrad has ended. True to their oath to fight to the last breath, the Sixth Army under the exemplary leadership of Field-Marshal Paulus has been overcome by the superiority of the enemy and by the unfavourable circumstances confronting our forces.

(15) William Joyce, Germany Calling (3rd February, 1943)

It would be a profound, a cardinal error to suppose that the German nation does not know how to take one defeat after so many victories. Nor, if the truth must be told, am I convinced that Stalingrad was, in the worst sense of the word, in the most essential, in the psychological sense, a defeat. Let us look at the facts. I think it was Napoleon who said, 'In warfare the moral is to the physical as three to one'. So far as divisions, brigades and battalions are concerned, Stalingrad was a German defeat. But when a Great Power like the National Socialist Reich is waging a total war, divisions and battalions can be replaced. If we review the position in sober and cold calculations, all sentiment apart, we must realise that the fall of Stalingrad cannot impair the German defensive system as a whole. Whatever individuals have lost, whatever they may have sacrificed, there is nothing in the position as a whole to controvert the view that the main objectives of the enemy offensives have been frustrated. Stalingrad was a part of the price which had to be paid for the salvation of Europe from the, Bolshevik hordes.

(16) Studs Terkel interviewed Robert Rasnus about his experiences in the US Army in Germany for his book, The Good War (1985)

We were aware that the Russians had taken enormous losses on the eastern front, that they really had broken the back of the German army. We would have been in for infinitely worse casualties and misery had it not been for them. We were well disposed toward them. I remember saying if we happen to link up with 'em, I wouldn't hesitate to kiss 'em.

I didn't hear any anti-Russian talk. I think we were realistic enough to know that if we were going to fight them, we would come out second best. We hadn't even heard of the atomic bomb yet. We'd just have to assume that it would be masses of armies, and their willingness to sacrifice millions of troops. We were aware that our leaders were sparing our lives. Even though somebody would have to do the dirty work in the infantry, our leaders would try to pummel the enemy with artillery and tanks and overpower them before sending the infantry in. If that was possible.

In the final campaign down through Bavaria, we were in Patton's army. Patton said we ought to keep going. To me, that was an unthinkable idea. The Russians would have slaughtered us, because of their willingness to give up so many lives. I don't think the rank of the GIs had any stomach for fighting the Russians. We were informed enough through press and newsreels to know about Stalingrad. I saw the actual evidence in those black-bordered pictures in every German household I visited. Black border, eastern front, nine out of ten.