The battle for Stalingrad was one of the most influential ones of the second World War. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers were killed due to incompetence on the top of the chain of command and ideological resolve. The annihilation of the German forces holding the city were a pivotal point in the course of war - the forces keeping the pocket could then assist the Soviet counteroffensive which was already taking back lost territories rapidly, while the German military machine suffered large losses. After this, the battles started to go the Russians' way until finally in May 1945 the Third Reich fell.
Fall Blau - Operation Blue
After Operation Barbarossa in 1941 had been cut off a few miles short of Moscow due to the infamous Russian winter, in summer 1942 it was time for the Wehrmacht to have another go at the vast expanses of land that remained. This time the advance, called Operation Blue (Fall Blau in German) was in the south - the northern and central armies were much too weakened by the last winter to carry out a new assault on Moscow, and Stalin had transfered the best troops to protect the city.
Replacing the sacked commander in chief, Hitler was now leading the effort - as a politician. A soldier would strive to destroy the enemy army, but Hitler's goal was to break the spine of Russian resistance by taking away their sources of grain, oil and other commodities. Three quarters of the Soviet Union's oil was produced at the Caucasus and Stalingrad, overlooking the river Volga, was an important nexus of transportation. Never mind the ideological value - the industrial city was Stalin's crown jewel, hence the name. To get to them Hitler devised a plan to advance with two army groups. Lack of troops meant that the forces had to be dispersed - a soldier would have used a single strong punch, but again, Hitler was a politician.
Group A was to advance to the oilfields in the southeast, while Group B led by general Friedrich von Paulus and his Sixth Army would march to and take Stalingrad. The Stalingrad offensive was intended to secure the flank of Group A and to cut off the Caucasus area entirely from the rest of Russia.
The initial offensive had echoes of the beginning of Operation Barbarossa - it was started mid-summer, June 28th, instead of late spring, meaning the winter lurked far closer than was necessary. Group B rolled across the strip of land between the rivers Don and Volga without much effort, with the Red Army retreating from their path and eluding any German attacks.
Meanwhile, with the direction of Group B obvious, in Stalingrad every building was being turned into a stronghold, and the citizens were readying themselves for a bloody battle for every inch, fueled by patriotism, communist passion, fear and a good bit of coercion. Everyone took part - half of the anti-aircraft guns were crewed by women. The Soviet industrial and military machine was finally building up momentum and spirits were higher on the home front.
Convinced after meagre resistance that taking Stalingrad would be an easy exercise, Hitler ordered several units of the Stalingrad advance to head south to assist the invasion of the Caucasus. The remaining troops of the Sixth Army and the Fourth Panzer Army were to continue and take the city.
Enemy at the Gates
On August 21st Group B finally arrived and one of the fiercest battles in human history began. The Luftwaffe was called in to give a hand and the bombing turned the city to hell on earth. Massive firestorms raged on, the buildings were reduced to rubble and stray dogs would try to swim across the river to escape the unbearable heat. What drove the dogs out couldn't drive the Russians defending their rodina out, however. The fighting was reminiscent of the horrors of trench warfare in the Great War, with massive daily casualties and bloody battles for every single piece of land.
This was the the first large engagement with urban warfare tactics, which the Germans jokingly called Rattenkrieg, Rat War. The Russian soldiers were able to adapt to the cramped battle field, while the German soldiers were trained for sweeping quickly across open terrain. For instance, the battle for a structure called Grain Elevator took weeks, and the German soldiers were stunned to find, after it was finally over, only forty Russian corpses inside. Another famous point of resistance was Pavlov's House.
The Red Army had to ship its reinforcements and supplies across the Volga, braving artillery and aerial bombardment. This made for a striking scene in the PC game Call of Duty: the player is first ferried across the river with Stuka dive bombers screaming above, then given a few rounds of ammo and instructions to grab a rifle from a dead comrade, and is executed by an officer should the player take a few too many steps backwards. All of this is based on historical fact - 13 000 Red Army soldiers were imprisoned or executed for deserting during the battle.
The Red Army tried to solve the stalemate with small guns, the Wehrmacht with big guns. The latter wheeled in heavier and heavier artillery, ravaging the city even further, the former brought in the infamous snipers who could score hundreds of kills in a single day. Armour was useless in the narrow streets and piles of debris, with the smouldering ruins offering perfect firing positions for anti-tank weapons.
After three months of intense bloodshed, in November Group B held 90% of the city. Icy slush started to form on the river and the remaining pockets of resistance were left without supplies or reinforcements. Hitler held a speech at a ball and belittled the remaining one tenth of the city, declaring that the battle of Stalingrad had gone his way. And in his way it had indeed went - with thousands of soldiers dead and the entire army group caught in a very precarious situation.
The German army fighting in Stalingrad had originally had its flanks guarded by German soldiers. With the losses piling up every day, the flanks had to be moved in to assist the main assault and large stretches of the eastern front were given for the other Axis powers to guard. The German Stalingrad flanks were now covered by Romanians, who were not too keen on the whole World War thing and had very inferior equipment.
While the battles raged on in the city, Georgi Zhukov, a general and marshal of the Red Army, started to assemble two forces south and north of Stalingrad instead of reinforcing the defenders of the city. He was using an old and familiar tactic employed, for instance, by the Carthagenian commander Hannibal in the Battle of Cannae - encirclement. The groups had a total of close to one million soldiers, and such a force can't be just snuck in, but the intel was not enough to convince Hitler to order a withdrawal. Stalingrad would not fall. The southern and northern Soviet army groups started to surround Stalingrad - Operation Uranus - with other groups attacking westward to take back Rostov and to cut off the Germans in the Caucasus.
The Romanian forces could offer no resistance and withdrew to Stalingrad themselves. The 300 000 to 400 000** soldiers from Germany and several other Axis countries suddenly found themselves trapped in a decimated city, with the actual front lines moving more and more west every day. What's worse, it was late November, and winter had set in - just the way the Russians liked it. The cold, the lack of food and illness were now the worst enemy of the German soldier.
The Bitter End
Hitler had stated before that Stalingrad would never be given back, and because of personal pride and political value, he ordered von Paulus to stay put and wait until the Soviet advance could be halted and countered. The soldiers surrounding the pocket were also tied down and couldn't help the actual Soviet counterattack. Von Paulus suggested a quick breakthrough from the pocket and leaving the city, but instead Hermann Göring promised that the needed amount of supplies could be transported through air*. When the convoy finally took off, the Red Army had already set up its AAA batteries, and the amount that could be transported daily was nowhere near sufficient. And when the planes did get through, the cargo holds had everything but food, fuel and ammunition, like grounded pepper and condoms.
An operation called Winter Storm was undertaken by the Germans to break through to the Caucasus pocket in the south in December, but the offensive was repulsed. In January the Soviets started Operation Neptune, and the frontier advanced even further away from Stalingrad. The hapless forces stuck in the city were not informed - they were still faithfully waiting for their rescue to arrive.
As January progressed, the noose around Stalingrad was tightened. The German forces retreated to the city, losing control of important airfields. The fighting wasn't quite as fierce as months ago now, though - the Axis soldiers were starved, cold and far away from home. Scores of them were taken prisoner and sent to labour camps, but only a scant few of them saw home ever again.
On January 30th 1942 the Führer promoted von Paulus to the rank of Field Marshal, reasoning that no German or Prussian of that rank had been taken alive before. Von Paulus had no aspirations of martyrdom, and instead became the first to break the tradition. The Soviet officers were startled to see such a high-ranking German officer alive as he surrendered to them on February 2nd. The von Paulus they met was a disheveled, broken man, and the glorious Sixth Army they had imprisoned and destroyed was but a shadow of the force that had so succeeded in France.
After 200 days, after over 600 000 casualties on the Axis side and over a million casualties on the Soviet side**, the battle was over. Stalingrad's status as the crown jewel of the Soviet Union was reinforced, the city rebuilt, and since the 1960's it's been known as Volgograd. While a symbol of the Russian resistance, the battle was World War 2 in a miniature scale: it was total war, where no civilian or structure was safe, and it was ideological war, where the celebrated leaders of two juggernauts duked it out on a grand scale.
After the battle, Hermann Göring, in a radio speech on the 10th birthday of the National Socialist regime, compared the disaster to the battle of Thermopylae, painting a picture of German soldiers keeping the enemy at bay bravely to the last man, helping the war effort as a whole. The contrary can be argued - if pulled back to the main front, rearmed, and resupplied, the hundreds of thousands of men might have been able to force a stalemate on the eastern front. The German advantage was, after all, quality, not quantity, while the Soviet advantage was the opposite.
"Stalingradin taistelu", a documentary aired Nov 7th 2002 on YLE Radio Aurora. http://www.klak.com/opi/aurora/jutut/stalingrad.php
The documentary film series The World at War
, episode 10, "Stalingrad June 1942 - February 1943"
* Different sources disagree on whether or not Göring knew the transport capability was (in)sufficient and whether or not it was Hitler's or Göring's idea to use an air bridge.
** Different sources also disagree on the numbers, but the scale is close to what's presented here.