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Battle of Stalingrad: The Turning Point in WW2

When one thinks of war, the Battle for Stalingrad comes to mind first. This is because the fighting in Stalingrad was no-holds-bar, fierce and beastly. It was a clash between two very proud nations; Germany and Russia.

And we do not mention here the obvious historical significance of Stalingrad. What if the Germans has won in Stalingrad?

History would have been very different today then.

Russian soldier move in the ruins of Stalingrad


By the end of August, [German] Army Group South (B) had finally reached the Volga to the north of Stalingrad. Another advance to the river south of the city followed. By 1 September 1942, the Soviets could only supply their forces in Stalingrad by perilous crossings of the Volga. A massive German air bombardment on 23 August had caused a firestorm in the city, killing thousands of civilians and turning the city into a vast landscape of rubble and burnt ruins. Eighty percent of the living space in the city was destroyed. The Soviet 62nd Army formed defense lines amid the debris, with strongpoints situated in houses and factories. One example of this destruction's source is that in the month of September alone the Germans expended 25,000,000 rounds of small arms fire in Stalingrad.

Tending to a wounded Soviet soldier

Fighting in the city was fierce and desperate. Stalin had authorized execution of his own troops if they retreated. "Not a step back!" was the slogan. During the battle, Soviet security forces arrested, executed or sent 13,000 of their own troops to penal battalions for "cowardice". As many as 300,000 were returned to their units or used to reman other units. The Germans meanwhile pushed forward at all costs, also suffering heavy casualties. Soviet reinforcements were shipped across the river Volga from the eastern bank, constantly attacked by German artillery and air raids. The life expectancy of a newly arrived Soviet soldier in the city dropped to a few hours. Bitter fighting raged for every street, every factory, every house, basement and staircase. The Germans, calling this unseen urban warfare Rattenkrieg ("rat-war"), bitterly joked about having captured the kitchen but still fighting for the living-room.

Russians look at the remains of the German soldiers

Fighting on Mamayev Kurgan, a prominent blood-soaked hill above the city, was particularly merciless. The height changed hands several times. At one of their counter-assaults to recapture it, the Soviets lost an entire division of 10,000 men in one day. Meanwhile, close combat inside the Grain Elevator, a huge silo where Soviet and German soldiers were so close that they could hear each other breathe, went on for weeks. In another part of the city, an apartment building defended by a Soviet platoon under the command of Yakov Pavlov was turned into an impenetrable fortress. The building, later called "Pavlov's House", oversaw a square in the city centre. The soldiers surrounded it with minefields, set up machine-gun positions at the windows, and breached the walls in the basement for better communications.

Fighting in the broken factories

With no end to the fighting in sight, the Germans started transferring increasingly heavy artillery to the city, eventually several gigantic 600mm mortars. Soviet artillery kept taking German positions under fire from the Eastern bank of the Volga. The Soviet defenders continued using the resulting ruins as defensive positions. Soviet snipers also successfully used the ruins to hide in. They inflicted heavy casualties on the Germans. (The highest scorer only identified as "Zikan", being credited with 224 kills by November 20, 1942, and Vasily Grigoryevich Zaitsev being credited with 149 kills during the battle). German tanks meanwhile became useless in heaps of rubble up to 8 m high. If they still were able to move forward, they were taken under Soviet anti-tank fire from the roof tops.

A German plane come to a sorry end

For both Stalin and for Hitler, the battle of Stalingrad became a question of life and death. Soviet command moved the Red Army's strategic reserves from the Moscow area to the lower Volga, and transferred all available aircraft from the entire country to Stalingrad. The strain on both military commanders was immense: Paulus developed an uncontrollable tic in his eye, while Chuikov experienced an outbreak of eczema that required him to bandage his hands completely.

People in Stalingrad struggle to survive. These women are helping in the war effort

In November, after three months of carnage and slow and costly advance, the Germans finally reached the river banks, capturing 90% of the ruined city and splitting the remaining Soviet forces into two narrow pockets. In addition, ice-floes on the Volga now prevented boats and tugs from supplying the Soviet defenders across the river. Nevertheless the fighting, especially on the slopes of Mamayev Kurgan and inside the factory area in the northern part of the city, continued as fiercely as ever. The battles for the Red October tractor factory and the Barrikady factory became world famous. While Soviet soldiers defended their positions and took the Germans under fire, factory workers repaired damaged Soviet tanks and other weapons in the direct vicinity of the battlefield, sometimes on the battlefield itself.

German troops gather near a destroyed Russian factory

German military doctrine was based on the principle of combined-arms teams and close cooperation between tanks, infantry, engineers, artillery, and ground-attack aircraft. To counter this, 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 forced the German infantry to either fight on their own or risk taking casualties from their own supporting fire; it neutralized German close air support and weakened artillery support.


This image is from before the German invasion. The Soviet Communist Party office in Stalingrad.

Bitter fighting raged for every ruin, street, factory, house, basement, and staircase. The sewers were the sites of labyrinthine firefights. The Germans, calling this unseen urban warfare Rattenkrieg ("Rat War"), bitterly joked about capturing the kitchen but still fighting for the living room. In such desperate chaos, all battle lines vanished, and the major, armor-supported mobility to which the German soldiers were accustomed degenerated into vicious, fast-paced skirmishes ranging through 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 on one level, Soviets on the next, Germans on the next, etc., firing at each other through holes in the floors.

The city of Stalingrad before the nightmare began

In another part of the city, a Soviet platoon under the command of Yakov Pavlov turned an apartment building that oversaw a square in the city center into an impenetrable fortress, 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. Well after the battle, Chuikov liked to joke that more Germans died trying to capture Pavlov's House than died capturing Paris. According to Beevor, throughout the second month, after each wave of German assault against the building, the Soviets had to run out and kick down the piles of German corpses in order for the machine and anti-tank gunners in the building to have clear firing lines across the square. The building was labeled Festung ("Fortress") on German maps. Sgt. Pavlov was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union for his actions.

Russian propaganda poster. "Kill the German beast"

The Luftwaffe retained air superiority into early November and Soviet daytime aerial resistance was nonexistent, but after flying 20,000 individual sorties, its original strength of 1,600 serviceable aircraft had fallen to 950. The Kampfwaffe (bomber force) had been hardest hit, having only 232 out of a force of 480 left.Despite enjoying qualitative superiority against the VVS and possessing eighty percent of the Luftwaffe's resources on the Eastern Front, Luftflotte 4 could not prevent Soviet aerial power from growing. By the time of the counter-offensive, the Soviets outnumbered it.


Russian poster. "That's enough, fascist beast"

The Sixth Army was the largest unit of this type in the world and almost twice as large as a regular German army unit, plus there was also a corps of the Fourth Panzer Army trapped in the pocket. It should have been clear that supplying them by air was impossible – the maximum 117.5 tons they could deliver a day—based on the number of available aircraft and with only the airfield at Pitomnik to land at—was far less than the minimum 800 tons needed. To supplement the limited number of Junkers Ju 52 transports, the Germans used aircraft wholly inadequate for the role, such as the He-177 bomber (some bombers performed adequately – the Heinkel He-111 proved to be quite capable and was much faster than the Ju 52). But Hitler backed Göring's plan and reiterated his order of "no surrender" to his trapped armies.

The air supply mission failed. Appalling weather conditions, technical failures, heavy Soviet anti-aircraft fire and fighter interceptions led to the loss of 488 German aircraft. The Luftwaffe failed to achieve even the daily supply of 117 tons that it had aircraft for. An average of 94 tons of supplies per day was delivered. The most successful day, 19 December, delivered only 289 tons of supplies in 154 flights. The supplies that did get through were often useless: one aircraft arrived with 20 tonnes of vodka and summer uniforms, another with supplies of black pepper and marjoram. Hitler's indecision on the purpose of Operation Winter Storm (either to allow a breakout or to open a corridor) meant that large quantities of fuel that would have helped with a breakout were shipped when food and ammunition would have been more useful.

"Death to the fascist monster"

The Sixth Army slowly starved. Pilots were shocked to find the troops too exhausted and hungry to unload. Germans fought over the slightest scraps of bread. General Zeitzler, moved by their plight, began to limit himself to their slim rations at meal times. After a few weeks on such a diet, he had lost 26 pounds and had become so emaciated that Hitler, annoyed, personally ordered him to start eating regular meals again.

The hardy Russians move

The Sixth Army now was beyond all hope of German reinforcement. The German troops in Stalingrad were not told this, however, and continued to believe that reinforcements were on their way. Some German officers requested that Paulus defy Hitler’s orders to stand fast and instead attempt to break out of the Stalingrad pocket. Paulus refused, as he abhorred the thought of disobeying orders. Also, while a motorised breakout might have been possible in the first few weeks, the Sixth Army now had insufficient fuel and the German soldiers would have faced great difficulty breaking through the Soviet lines on foot in harsh winter conditions.

The Germans inside the pocket retreated from the suburbs of Stalingrad to the city itself. The loss of the two airfields, at Pitomnik on 16 January 1943 and Gumrak on either 25 January or the night of 21/22 January, meant an end to air supplies and to the evacuation of the wounded. The third and last serviceable runway was at the Stalingradskaja flight school, which reportedly had the last landings and takeoffs on the night of 22–23 January. After daybreak on 23 January, there were no more reported landings except for continuous air drops of ammunition and food until the end.

The Germans were now not only starving, but running out of ammunition. Nevertheless, they continued to resist stubbornly, in part because they believed the Soviets would execute any who surrendered. In particular, the so-called "HiWis", Soviet citizens fighting for the Germans, had no illusions about their fate if captured.

A Russian sniper fells German soldiers

The Germans adopted a simple defense of fixing wire nets over all windows to protect themselves from grenades. The Soviets responded by fixing fish hooks to the grenades so they stuck to the nets when thrown. The Germans now had no usable tanks in the city. Those tanks which still functioned could at best be used as stationary cannons. The Soviets did not bother employing tanks in areas where the urban destruction restricted their mobility. A Soviet envoy made Paulus a generous offer on honourable terms: if he surrendered within 24 hours, he would receive a guarantee of safety for all prisoners, medical care for the sick and wounded, prisoners allowed to keep their personal belongings, "normal" food rations, and repatriation to whatever country they wished to go to after the war—but Paulus, ordered not to surrender by Adolf Hitler, did not respond, ensuring the destruction of the Sixth Army.

Poster. "Hitler"

On 30 January 1943, the 10th anniversary of his coming to power, Hitler promoted Paulus to Generalfeldmarschall. Since no German Field Marshal had ever been taken prisoner, Hitler assumed that Paulus would fight on or take his own life. However, when Soviet forces closed in on his headquarters in the ruined GUM department store the next day, Paulus surrendered. The remnants of the Axis forces in Stalingrad surrendered on 2 February; 91,000 tired, ill, and starving prisoners were taken, including 3,000 Romanians, the survivors of the 20th Infantry Division, 1st Cavalry Division and “Col. Voicu” Detachment. To the delight of the Soviet forces and the dismay of the Third Reich, the prisoners included 22 generals. Hitler was furious and confided that Paulus "could have freed himself from all sorrow and ascended into eternity and national immortality, but he prefers to go to Moscow."


Sad End To German Soldiers In Stalingrad

Battle Of Stalingrad (July 17, 1942 - February 2, 1943): In Pictures

Rare Images From Stalingrad: 1942-43: Initial Stages

Battle for Stalingrad

Unseen Rare Images From Battle Of Stalingrad: Large Pictures: Part 2

Daily Diary: STALINGRAD: July 17, 1942

The Russians At Stalingrad: A Pictorial

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Anonymous said...

These pictures are invaluable for every student of History.

Anonymous said...


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Snippets from History

This short but important battle played a key role in the decision to use atomic bombs when attacking Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The battle showed just how far Japanese troops would go to defend their country.

Snippets From History

Paulus didn't give the order to 6th Army to surrender, but his troops no longer had much fight left in them. Resistance faded out over the next two days, with the last die-hards finally calling it quits. One Red Army colonel shouted at a group of prisoners, waving at the ruins all around them: "That's how Berlin is going to look!


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Points to Ponder: Why Is China Unstable?

The aim of individuals in any society is money and power. Societies that give equal chance to all its members to get them will be the most stable. That is why democracies are more stable than other systems of governance.

China after Deng's reform gave the chance to get rich but power is in the hands of an elite; the Communist Party of China. Membership to the party is at the whims of the local party bosses. This leaves out many people who crave political power dissatisfied and disgruntled. There in lies the roots of instability. The Party suppressed these demands once at Tiananmen in 1989. But force is hardly the way to deal with things like these.

READ MORE: Tiananmen Square Massacre