Ursula's History Web
During the Second World War, Stalingrad was the most drawn-out bitter battle on the eastern front. The Russian resistance had crumbled badly under the impact of the Blitzkrieg. It was Russia’s weakest hour and fortunately for Russia, Hitler split his effort between the Caucasus and Stalingrad on the river Volga, gateway to the north and the Urals. The first attacks on Stalingrad by General Paulus’s 6th Army were narrowly checked in mid July 1942. Hitler increasingly weakened his forces in the Caucasus to reinforce the attack on Stalingrad. He became obsessed with the "City of Stalin", and could not bear to be defeated by it. Although the Russian positions there came to look more and more desperate, the resistance hardened under the steady hammering of the city. The most critical time was on October 14th, when the Russians had their back to the Volga. But beneath the surface, basic factors were working in the Russian’s favor. The morale of the German attackers was being sapped by their heavy losses, and a growing sense of frustration set in that the Russians were preparing for a counter-offensive.
This counter-offensive was launched on November 19th. Wedges were driven into the flanks at several places, so as to isolate the 6th Army. By the 23rd the encirclement was complete, more than a quarter of a million German and Allied troops were cut off. Hitler would not permit any withdrawal, and all attempts to relieve were repulsed in December. Air supply was inadequate; even then Hitler was reluctant to permit the 6th Army to try a breakout westward before it was too late. In January General Paulus was forced to surrender with the remnants of his near-starving, half-frozen, completely exhausted army. It was as if Stalin, with his passion for secrecy, had managed to conceal not only the strength of the Red Army’s reserves, but also the severity of the Russian winter. Many of the German Generals had been opposed to the invasion of the Soviet Union, especially with the British in their back and the likelihood that Britain would in due time provide the bases for an invasion of the Continent.
The Generals dreaded the fight on two fronts, but all objections fell on Hitler’s deaf ears. In the summer and autumn of 1941 Stalin’s regime has withstood shocks greater than the ones which had toppled the regime of the Tsar in the First World War. But the Russians had a marked Achilles’ heel, in that Soviet oil was mainly in the Caucasus. If this region was crossed and Baku captured it would turn Germany’s wheels and make it possible for her to withstand a prolonged war, without having to depend on Romanian oilfields, which were vulnerable to attacks by Soviet bombers from the Crimea. These were persuasive reasons for Hitler to place emphasis of the 1942 campaign in the south. Germany's forces were already considerably extended in maintaining the existing front lines after the losses of the winter battles. A drive southeastward against the Caucasus would extend the front line even more. The possibility existed that the Germans would either be cut off or would have to make a hasty retreat out of the Caucasus. Therefore, it was necessary to set up a flank and rear guard to cover them against this danger, bearing in mind that Germany’s forces were stretched. Her allies, Romania, Italy and Hungary, with their relatively poorly equipped, badly trained and doubtfully enthusiastic forces, would have to take part in such an operation. One of the Generals said after the war "At the start Stalingrad was no more than a name on the map for us." But it became more and more the natural place to anchor the eastern end of the flank at the Volga in the Stalingrad area. The bulk of the German Army consisted of drafted soldiers, who dreaded to be sent to the Russian front. They knew how tenacious the Russians would defend their homeland. They offensive against this vast country had begun on June 22, 1941, and Hitler with his warped mind believed that this country could be defeated before the onset of winter. All the soldiers of the German Army were clad in summer uniforms, and as time went on, the weather turned cold in early fall.
The same misfortune befell them as Napoleons Grand Armee. They too were not prepared for the harsh Russian winter. And Hitler had grossly underestimated the ability and the resolve of the Red Army to rally its forces. An unlimited amount of manpower was mobilized in surprisingly short time and thrown against the invaders. Vast Russian forces, infantry, light amour and squadrons of T 34s were brought up for the battles. Altogether the force comprised over one million men, with thirteen thousand five hundred and forty-one guns and mortars, eight hundred and ninety four tanks and one thousand one hundred and fifteen aircraft. The German High Command had only been dimly aware of the existence of such a force. That is was recognized too late was a tribute to Red Army security and skill in deception, and a reproach to the intelligence services of Hitler and his generals, but it also contained an element of luck. The total Axis forces in the area too numbered over a million, but it was in tanks and guns that the Russians had a clear edge. With this in mind, the Russian General in Command, Zhukov, concentrated his tanks and guns and aircraft against the Romanian forces on the river Don and on the Romanian forces west of the lakes south of Stalingrad. These Romanian armies were known to be poorly equipped, disgruntled and often on bad terms with the Germans. But the shortage of German troops made it necessary to seek the Romanian contribution.
Anyway, Hitler was not too disposed to take Romanian anxieties seriously. But he did agree to make tank and anti-tank forces available to them and ordered XLVIII Panzer Corps into the sector on November 10th. Since September it had been inactive and because of fuel shortage many of the tank engines had not been started for over two months. The tanks had been dug in, camouflaged and protected against the frost with straws and reeds. When the German division was ordered to take to the road, sixty-five of its hundred and four tanks could not be started. Even after intensive work only forty-two could be put in running order. The straw had attracted mice, and the mice went into the tanks to look for food and feasted on the insulation covering the electrical wiring. When the tanks started up short circuits developed in their electrical systems, and several of them were set on fire by sparks.
In the mean time, Russian patrols reported that General Paulus was regrouping. Clearly the German offensive would begin soon and on November 11th at 0630 hours Paulus began his last attempt to capture the city of Stalingrad. Seven divisions (XIV and XXIV Panzer, 100th Light, 44th, 79th, 305th and 389th Infantry) with elements of 161st and 294th brought in by air. They were surprisingly strong, as most of them had been in battles in the previous weeks. The Russian troops met them head-on. After five hours of grim, close distance combat, Paulus committed the tactical reserve, overrunning the 95th Russian division and reaching the river Volga. The defenders knew that it was General Paulus’ last attempt. The support of the Luftwaffe was inferior, still, the Russians suffered heavy casualties, but they could see that the end was near. On the evening of November 12th the German attack let up. The Russian Commander Zhukov arranged for radio calls to tell him that help was on the way, but it was a bluff for German ears. Everywhere in the city began the counter attack, block by block, house by house, room by room. Slowly the tide began to turn. The encirclement of the dying city was complete, but the vicious battle raged on. When General Paulus ask for permission to try a breakout, Hitler told him " Where the German soldier stands, he remains." The Russians decided to make an offer of honorable capitulation. On January 8th they sent representatives to the German lines under a flag of truce.
The Germans were handed a paper on which it read:
"To the Commander of VI Army surrounded at Stalingrad, Colonel-General Paulus, or his representative.
The VI German Army, formations of VI Panzer Army, and attached units have been completely encircled since November 23rd, 1942. Units of the Red Army have surrounded this group of German forces with a solid ring. All hopes of rescue of your forces from the South and Southwest have proved unjustified. The German forces, which hastened to your aid, have been smashed by the Red Army. The German transport Air force, which is bringing you starvation rations of food, ammunition and fuel, has been compelled to change its airfields frequently because of the swift advance of the Red Army. The situation of the encircled troops is serious. They are suffering hunger, sickness and cold. The severe Russian winter is only beginning; hard frosts, cold winds and blizzards are still to come. Your soldiers have not been provided with winter uniforms and find themselves in severe, unhealthy conditions. You, as the Commander, and all officers of the encircled forces understand very well that you have no chance of breaking through the ring of encirclement. Your situation is hopeless and further resistance is completely pointless. We propose that you accept the following terms of capitulation:
1. All encircled German forces headed by you and your staff to cease resistance.
2. You to hand over to us all personnel, armaments, all military equipment and all military property in working order.
We guarantee to all officers, non-commissioned officers, and all men who cease resistance, their lives and safety, and after the end of the war return to Germany or to any other country to which the prisoners desire to go.
All members of forces which surrender may retain their military uniform, badges of rank and medals, personal effects, valuables, and in the case of senior officers, their swords.
Normal rations will be instituted immediately for all officers and men who surrender. Medical aid will be given to all wounded, sick and frostbitten.
Your reply is expected at 1500 hours Moscow time on January 9th, 1943 in written form by a representative personally appointed by you. Driving in a light vehicle with a white flag, your representative will be met by Russian officers in area B, 500 meters southeast of siding 564.
In the event our proposal for capitulation is refused by you, we warn you that the forces of the Red Army and Red Air Fleet will be compelled to take the matter to annihilation of the encircled German forces, and for their destruction you will bear the responsibility."
However agreeable these terms were, General Paulus did not yet give up. It must be said here, that the offer was made at all is most surprising. But Red Army’s senior officers had a healthy respect for the German soldier. Hitler constantly demanded miracles from his troops and frequently got them.
The ultimatum with its promise of food and medical treatment contained an echo of the surrender terms given to General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox in 1865. In any case, Operation "Ring" was to go forward.
Once more the tortured earth of Stalingrad heaved under the explosion of bombs and shells. Even so, it was not expected that the Russian onslaught could be halted. On the evening of the 17th the Germans were back in the inner perimeter of the city, and an uneasy lull lay over the area as the Russians regrouped. Field Marshall Erich von Manstein made it his first priority to reestablish contact from Army Group Don with the cut-off 6th Army, but was soon overruled by Hitler. Manstein feared that the whole southern front was endangered as long as its effort was concentrated in the Don bend and unless the 6th Army could break out and be employed elsewhere. He made a last attempt by telephone to persuade Hitler to allow the surrender, but it was in vain. Coldly, Hitler sent the men of VI Army to its doom. After the final surrender, only ninety-one thousand of the three hundred and thirty thousand survived. When it was all over, one hundred and forty-seven thousand two hundred German soldiers were dead as well as forty-six thousand seven hundred Russians. Of the ninety-one thousand who surrendered, only five thousand ever saw Germany again. A typhoid epidemic killed about fifty thousand of the feeble survivors. The last prisoners of war returned to Germany in 1955.
Taking stock, all sacrifices in the end had been inessential. After this fateful day in February 1943, Germany went on fighting for the next two years and three months. The war was finally over on May 7th 1945, after a vicious battle for Berlin. It was gallantly fought by the soldiers of the Red Army and defended in total desperation by the once proud German Army, assisted by old men of the Home defense and teenage boys of the Hitler Youth.
The American civil war General William Tecumseh Sherman was quoted as having said, "war is hell", and all German and Russian soldiers, perhaps soldiers everywhere, who had faced the enemy in desperate battle, would agree with this sober observation.
ReferencesStalingrad: The Turning Point. Jukes, Geoffrey. Ballantine Books Inc., 1968.
The Second World War. Keegan, John. Penguin Books Ltd., 1989.