On Feb. 3, 1943 — 70 years ago this week — the city of Stalingrad was finally at peace. The day before, with the German Sixth Army in tatters around him, Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus had surrendered to the Soviets.
The battle for Stalingrad began in August 1942 as Hitler's Werhmacht pushed deeper into the Ukraine before extending itself to the south into the oil-rich Caucasus. One problem remained on the German army's flank, however, the city of Stalingrad. To secure this strategic location and to gain the prestige that would follow from capturing the city named after the Soviet leader, Hitler ordered the Wehrmacht's largest formation, the Sixth Army, to take the city.
Named Tsaritsyn before the Russian Revolution, Stalingrad sat along the Volga River (hence the city's current name, Volgograd). The longest river in Europe, the Volga begins near Moscow and flows south and east, ultimately flowing into the Caspian Sea. The city of Stalingrad hugged the river in a long narrow strip north to south on the west side of the river. When the Germans began their attack into the city proper, they quickly made several local victories, and even reached the river at some points.
The Germans had every right to feel confident of victory. True, they had been stopped before Moscow in December 1941, and they were not as strong as they had been that first year of the war in Russia, but neither were the Soviets. In fact, many high-ranking German officers were convinced that the Soviet Union was on its last leg.
Despite the initial gains, the Germans could not take the whole city. Denying the Germans the victory they coveted was the 62nd Army under Soviet Gen. Vasily Chuikov, who ordered his men to fight up close to the Germans so as to negate their advantages in artillery and air power. This was a bloody business, but effective. The Germans were forced to clear out building by building, room by room, often meeting ambush or booby-traps.
In Moscow, Stalin kept ordering soldiers to cross the Volga River to add to the numbers of the 62nd Army, often crossing under harrowing fire from strafing German fighters. Two of Stalin's top generals, Georgy Zhukov and Aleksandr Vasilevsky, however, saw a different path to victory.
In his book “Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943,” historian Antony Beevor wrote: “The city of Stalingrad, Zhukov argued, should be held in a battle of attrition, with just enough troops to keep the defense alive. No formations should be wasted on minor counter-attacks, unless absolutely necessary to divert the enemy from seizing the whole of the west bank of the Volga. Then, while the Germans focused entirely on capturing the city, the Stavka (Soviet high command) would secretly assemble fresh armies behind the lines for a major encirclement, using deep thrusts far behind the point of apex.”
In November, the Soviets launched Operation Uranus, which closed around the German Sixth Army from both north and south, encircling it around the city. The German besiegers had now become the besieged. The attack had succeeded because while the city itself was invested with the cream of the German army, the Germans' flanks were held only by inferior troops who were overwhelmed by the Soviet attack.
With the Germans now surrounded, the battle had altered significantly. The initiative had passed from the Germans to the Soviets, who successfully fought off German attempts to reconnect with the trapped Sixth Army. While Gen. Paulus pleaded with Hitler to be allowed to attempt a breakout and retreat, Hitler demanded that the Sixth Army hold firm. As the weeks went by, the Sixth Army's position became more and more precarious as food and ammunition ran low and German attempts to supply the besieged army by air proved disastrous.
By January the writing was on the wall. The Sixth Army was doomed. The Soviet forces became more daring and resourceful, and the German pocket shrank daily. From his command headquarters thousands of miles away, Hitler ordered movements for even the smallest units trapped at Stalingrad, proving once again his often catastrophic need to micromanage.
Realizing that the position of the Sixth Army was hopeless, Hitler promoted Paulus to field marshal. This was not a noble gesture to reward the commander for his service. Rather Hitler, who knew that no German field marshal in history had ever surrendered his army, hoped that Paulus would put a revolver to his head rather than wave the white flag. On Jan. 30, Paulus accepted the promotion with the following note to the Führer:
“On the tenth anniversary of your assumption of power, the Sixth Army hails its Führer. The swastika flag is still flying above Stalingrad. May our battle be an example to the present and coming generations, that they must never capitulate even in a hopeless situation, for then Germany will come out victorious.”
In his book “Enemy at the Gates: The Battle for Stalingrad,” historian William Craig wrote: “On the morning of February 2, all the Russian artillery concentrated on this area, and for two hours, shells rained down on the pitiful survivors of the Sixth Army. Then the barrage was over and thousands of Russian troops rushed the cellars while German machine-gunners fired their last belts of ammunition. Enraged at the fanatic resistance, the Russians pulled the prisoners out of foxholes and beat them savagely.”
Despite Hitler's implied order to commit suicide, Paulus surrendered what remained of his army to the Soviets on Feb. 2. The next day, with the guns silent, the living set about to tend to the multitudes of dead. Beevor wrote: “Some 3,500 civilians were put to work as burial parties. They stacked frozen German corpses like piles of timber on the roadside.”
Collectively both sides suffered more than a million casualties in the battle. Stalingrad proved to be a turning point in the war, however. Before Stalingrad, many believed it likely that the Germans would conquer the Soviet Union. After Stalingrad there was no way a total German military victory over the USSR was still possible.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org