‘Only Men Endure’ – The Battle of Stalingrad

April 4, 2013 10:30 pm

It was the battle that broke the back of the Nazi juggernaut sent hurtling East against the Soviet Union. After Stalingrad, Hitler’s armies were never again able to fully recover. The Third Reich was on the road to ruin.

Seventy years ago, alongside the British and Commonwealth forces’ victory over Rommel’s Afrika Korps at El Alamein a few months before, the Soviet victory at Stalingrad marked the turning point of the Second World War. It followed a murderous, titanic struggle played out amid the rubble of a city. A city that barred the way to the spoils of war Hitler desperately needed – namely the oil wells of the Caucasus in south-western Russia.

After a series of stunning military victories throughout Western and Central Europe, the continent lay at Hitler’s feet. The Wehrmacht’s ‘Blitzkrieg‘ (lightning war) had knocked out the forces of France and Britain within weeks by the summer of 1940. The Balkan countries suffered a similar fate the following year when Yugoslavia then Greece fell like ten pins. A nominal mobile force under Erwin Rommel bailed out Hitler’s hapless ally Mussolini‘s Italian forces in the North African arena, then threatened the Suez Canal and the oil rich regions of the Middle East. But the Nazi dictator’s ambitions always lay in the east – the sprawling steppes of the USSR. Swastika

Bloodiest phase

He had always looked East for his plans for German expansion – ‘Lebensraum’, living space. He always envisioned German colonisation, ever since he wrote his turgid book ‘Mein Kampf‘, to mean conquering Russia.

‘We have only to kick down the door and the whole rotten edifice will collapse,’ Hitler had written.

For his brand of racial politics, defeating Russia symbolised his whole raison d’etre’. He deemed the Slavic races as inferior, sub-human, alongside the Jews. He also saw Nazism as the ideology that counterposed ‘communism’, or ‘Jewish Bolshevism’ as he preferred it.

Dealing with the West was secondary to settling with his perceived threat of the world’s first workers’ state. Accordingly, once he felt no threat from his western flank – France was occupied and Britain seemingly neutralised – a force of three million troops was marshalled on the Eastern frontier. On June 22, 1941, despite the ‘Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact‘ signed and sealed in August, 1939 that had seen Poland divided between them, Hitler unleashed his armies across the border that signalled the bloodiest phase of the war.

Hitler was in a hurry. He needed to knock Soviet Russia out before the USA entered the war as, already, President Roosevelt had agreed to supply Britain with arms, munitions and warships via the ‘Lend-Lease‘ scheme. The Americans were also in fierce diplomatic dispute with Germany’s allies the Japanese over their invasion of French-Indo China (Vietnam). It was only a matter of time before the American government would intervene.

The initial German thrust into the USSR was devastating as whole armies were encircled and annihilated. Prisoners rounded up numbered in their millions. In the north, Leningrad was surrounded. On the central front, the outskirts of Moscow itself were reached. Only desperate defensive fighting and the terrible Russian winter fended off further advances. At the end of this tumultuous year, America did, indeed, enter the war following the Japanese attack on their mid-Pacific naval base at Pearl Harbour. Hitler knew he had to finish the job before the might of the US economy could be brought to bear on the conflict. He decided his forces would turn south in a two-pronged attack. He would send his forces to capture the oil wells around Baku, Maikop and Grozny while taking out the prized industrial centre of Stalingrad. The fact the city was named after Stalin himself would be the more sweeter a victory.

Stalin had ruthlessly clawed his way to the top of the bureaucracy since the death of Lenin in 1924. He succeeded in marginalising Trotsky who had called for a second, democratic revolution. Stalin then continued to clamp down on workers’ participation in the revolution. He, and the bureaucracy he represented, used Russia’s prestige as leader of the international workers’ movement as a means of derailing any prospect of world revolution. Instead, ‘Stalinism’ preferred to use its influence not as a means of advancing revolution in other countries, but more as a foreign policy tool. Stalin attempted to forge a compromise with capitalist governments to counter-balance the rise of fascism throughout much of the Thirties. But the Western democracies would have no truck with this. In fact, some Western politicians saw the rise of Hitler as a useful bulwark, a first line of defence against the spread of ‘the Red Menace’, a kind of  cordon sanitaire’.

When the West rejected Stalin’s approaches, he responded to Nazi Germany’s courtship with a pact of non-aggression instead. Cynically, this allowed Stalin to extended his own borders to the West when the Germans invaded Poland. Stalin believed the USSR was safe while the Nazis and the Western democracies would weaken each other in a protracted struggle such as happened in the First World War. He didn’t reckon on the speedy conclusions of the ‘Blitzkrieg’. Stalin was totally devastated by Hitler’s betrayal and withdrew from sight for many weeks during the first period of heavy defeats of the Soviet forces.

It was only the determination, perseverance and sheer stamina of millions of ordinary Russians who re-grouped and fought back that managed to stem the fascist tide. This forced the Nazis to change tack and head south towards Stalingrad. Stalin’s refusal to abandon Moscow helped to rally Russian morale, but it was the tenacity of the Russian people that held fast and the brilliance of their army general staff, particularly that of Marshal Georgy Zhukov, who masterminded the resistance and fightback.

Stalin had, among other things, been responsible for the murderous purges of the ‘Old Bolsheviks‘, genuine socialists, among them many of the army general staff before the war. This had been one of the reasons for the Soviet Union’s lack of military defence and preparedness that had been so disastrous. Zhukov was not afraid of challenging Stalin, standing up to his ineptitudes and bad decisions. Stalin’s notorious Order 227 ‘not one step back’  called for ‘blocking units’ that would shoot any soldiers in retreat. This was quietly dropped a few months later in October, 1942. Stalin’s power was not as monolithic as people supposed.

Hugging tactics

Hitler’s personal intervention meant that Army Group South A and B were sent south. Group ‘A’ headed for the Caucasus while Group ‘B’, which included General Von Paulus’ 6th Army, attacked Stalingrad following heavy Luftwaffe air raids that reduced the buildings to rubble. The Germans entered the city by the end of July. Stalingrad

Their first opponents were female soldiers of the Soviet Anti-Aircraft Regiment. Reinforcements were being frantically ferried over the river Volga that kept the West bank of the city in Russian hands. The German advantage of mobile tank units was neutralised in the enclosed urban battleground. Much of the fighting took place in derelict buildings, houses and factories, even the sewer system. Civilians, including women and children, helped with the building of fortifications and the fighting. Workers’ militias also joined the fray from the few factories still functioning.

Russian forces employed ‘hugging tactics’ – placing themselves close to forward enemy positions the better to prevent air raids or artillery barrages from the Germans who would not want to risk killing their own troops. Hand to hand fighting was the order of the day.

And then came the winter.

Temperatures plummeted to -20 degrees. German soldiers had not been supplied with winter clothing and had outrun their supplies. Combat became a fight for survival.

Outside the city, the Germans were covered on their flanks by the weaker, ill-equipped troops of their Axis allies from Italy, Hungary, Croatia and Rumania. This provided the ideal weak link for Zhukov’s planned counter-attack – Operation Uranus – launched on November 19 when Soviet reserves staged a two pronged attack around the city encircling the 6th Army, cutting them off.

For the sake of his military reputation, Hitler forbid any withdrawal and denied Von Paulus permission to attempt a break out. The vainglorious head of the Luftwaffe, Reichsmarshall Herman Goering, claimed he could easily supply the army from the air, but it was too little too late and badly organised. Most supplies dropped into the hands of the Russians. One plane’s cargo, recovered by German troops, contained cases of black pepper and contraceptives. The battle moved towards its inexorable tragic climax.

Throughout January, 1943, the Germans were running low on food, ammunition and medical supplies. By February 2, Von Paulus was forced to surrender despite Hitler promoting him to Field Marshal in the hope that, in the tradition of no German soldier of that rank ever having been captured, he would commit suicide. He didn’t. In fact, he surrendered his remaining command of 110,000 troops, stating: ‘I have no intention of shooting myself for this Bohemian corporal.’ More than 500,000 had been killed.

ZhukovVon Paulus and some of his fellow senior staff were taken to Moscow and persuaded to make pro-Soviet radio broadcasts. Meanwhile, the thousands of ordinary German soldiers, exhausted, starved, many of them walking wounded, were force marched for hundreds of miles through the ice and snow. Many of them died in forced labour camps or due to ill treatment, most of which was in return for the brutality meted out by the German invaders. Twenty five million Russians died in the war.

Only around 6,000 German troops survived and were allowed to return home by 1955, ten years after the war’s end, mainly due to the campaigns for their release by Marshal Zhukov himself.

Stalingrad was the graveyard for many brave soldiers and civilians, men, women and children, Germans and Russians. The battle broke the spell of Nazi military ambitions. The Wehrmacht, from then on, could only fight a brave, orderly retreat over the next two and a half years.

‘We poured round after round of shells into Stalingrad, dropped thousands of tons of bombs. Everything was destroyed – buildings, trees, animals, even stones could not withstand our force. Only men could endure such firepower, such hell on earth’ – A German Panzer officer.

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