By mid 1942, the German invasion had already cost Russia over six million soldiers, half killed and half captured by the Germans, and a large part of its vast territory and resources. With the help of its arctic winter, it stopped the exhausted Germans just before Moscow and pushed them back a bit. But in the summer of 1942, when Russia was still very weak from its tremendous losses, the German military was again ready to demonstrate its formidable fighting force.
Hitler's Generals wanted to attack in the direction of Moscow again, in order take Russia's capital city, its heart and nerve center, and to crush most of Russia's remaining military forces while doing so, but Hitler now personally commanded the German army, and he listened to his Generals much less than before.
In April 1942, Hitler issued "war directive 41", which detailed his plan for the Russian front for summer 1942, code named Operation Blue. The plan was to concentrate all available forces in the southern flank of the long front, destroy the front line Russian forces there, and then advance in two directions to the primary and secondary objectives, which were the two most important remaining industrial centers in South Russia:
- Advance far South-East, through the mountainous Caucasus region, to capture the rich oil fields on the Caspian Sea.
- Advance East, to Stalingrad, a major industrial and transportation center on the West bank of the wide Volga river, the main waterway of inner Russia, that runs all the way from North of Moscow to the Caspian Sea in the South.
It's important to note that Hitler's directive did not demand to occupy the city of Stalingrad. The directive was "to reach Stalingrad itself, or at least to cover it with heavy artillery, so that it will no longer be an industrial or transportation center". The German army achieved this objective with minimal losses in the first day of the battle of Stalingrad. It was the stubborn battle to occupy the city itself to the last ruined meter, and later Hitler's refusal to retreat from Stalingrad, that cost him his entire southern campaign, and horrible losses to both sides. Once his forces entered the city named after Stalin, the Soviet dictator and Hitler's arch enemy, Hitler became obsessed with occupying Stalingrad, and remained obsessed with it despite everything, until the large German force in and near Stalingrad was destroyed to the last man.
The German attack in South Russia began on June 28, 1942, a year after the invasion of Russia began. The Germans advanced rapidly in a Blitzkrieg of armor and air power, and were followed by their Italian, Romanian, and Hungarian allies, whose task was to secure the long German flanks. The Russian front collapsed and the Germans rapidly advanced towards South Russia's last natural line of defense, the Volga.
On July 28, 1942, in a desperate attempt to stop the collapse, Stalin issued "order 227" that "every granule of Soviet soil must be stubbornly defended to the last drop of blood.", and secret police units were placed behind the Russian front units to kill anyone who deserts or retreats. However, order 227 also appealed to the Russian patriotism, clarifying how severe the situation was.
Despite their effort, the Russian 62nd and 64th armies West of Stalingrad could not stop the advancing Germans before the city. The empty arid prairie was perfect for attack, and they were pushed back towards Stalingrad, which was an urban stretch along the West bank of the Volga.
On August 23, 1942, the spearhead of the German 6th army reached the Volga just North of Stalingrad and captured a 8km wide strip along the river bank, and the German tanks and artillery began to sink crossing ships and ferries. On that day, other units of the 6th army reached the outskirts of Stalingrad, and the hundreds of bombers and dive bombers of the Luftwaffe's 4th air fleet began to heavily bombard the city, and would continue to do so daily for weeks, destroying or damaging every building in the city. The battle of Stalingrad began.
The ferocious urban battle in Stalingrad
In the first days of the fighting, the Germans were confident that although Stalingrad's defenders fought fanatically from the beginning, they will quickly occupy the city. From the Russian side things didn't look better. There were initially 40,000 troops in Stalingrad, but mostly ill-equipped reserve soldiers and those of the local population who were not evacuated, and it was assumed that Stalingrad might be lost in a few days. It was desperately clear to the Russian leadership that the only thing which could still save Stalingrad from falling, is a superb commander with a combination of the highest military skill and an iron will, and every possible reinforcement.
Actually two such commanders were selected and given the task of saving Stalingrad:
In the national level, Stalin ordered General Zhukov to leave the Moscow front and simply go to South Russia and save what he can. Zhukov, the best and most influential Russian General of World War 2, practically served as Stalin's military "crisis solver".
In the local level, General Vasily Chuikov, the deputy commander of the 64th army South of Stalingrad, and an aggressive and determined commander, was called to the regional command post. The severe situation was presented to him, and he was appointed the new commander of the Russian 62nd army, which still held most of Stalingrad. Before he left, he was asked "How do you interpret your mission?". Chuikov's answer was "We will defend the city or die". His personal leadership during the following months, which projected catching determination and fatalism to Stalingrad's defenders, shows that he meant it.
When General Chuikov came to Stalingrad, the 62nd army already lost half of its troops, and it was clear to its soldiers that it became a death trap, and many tried to escape across the Volga. General Chuikov knew that the only way to keep holding Stalingrad was to buy time with blood.
Stalingrad's defenders were informed that the secret police guards all crossing points on the Volga, and everyone crossing the river without permission will be shot on the spot. In addition, a stream of fresh reinforcements, including elite units, began to arrive and cross the Volga under German fire into Stalingrad. Most were killed, but they enabled Chuikov to keep holding at least part of Stalingrad despite the tremendous German pressure. The average life expectancy of a reinforcement soldier in Stalingrad was as low as 24 hours !!. Whole units were sacrificed in Stalingrad's desperate defense. One unit which perhaps sacrificed most in the battle of Stalingrad was the elite 13th Guards division, which was sent across the Volga into Stalingrad just in time to repel a German attack that reached the Volga near the center of the city. 30% of the 10,000 warriors of the 13th division were killed in the first 24 hours of their arrival, and only 320 survived the battle of Stalingrad, a horrible 97% death rate, but they saved Stalingrad in the most critical moment.
The concentration of forces and the intensity of the fighting in Stalingrad was unprecedented, with divisions attacking along a front line just a mile wide, or less. General Chuikov had to move his command post in the city from place to place to avoid being killed or captured, usually in the last possible moments.
Just sending more reinforcements to replace the dead was not enough. In order to reduce losses, Chuikov's strategy was to narrow the gap between the Russian positions and the German positions to the absolute minimum, so close that the German Stuka dive bombers will not be able to drop their bombs on the Russian positions without risking the German soldiers. As a result, the fighting in Stalingrad was reduced to an endless series of small battles for every street, every building, every floor, and sometimes for every room in a building. Some key positions in Stalingrad changed hands up to fifteen times during the battle, with terrible bloodshed. The Russians had an advantage in night fighting among the ruined buildings and factories, sometimes using just knives or grenades instead of guns. The ruined city was a perfect killing zone for a large number of snipers, of both sides, including the head of the German army's sniper school who was sent to Stalingrad to hunt the Russian snipers and was killed by one of them. Some highly successful Russian snipers became famous heroes. One of them killed 224 Germans by mid November.
The Russians nicknamed the city "the Stalingrad street fighting academy". They also starved most of the time, because the German artillery made crossing the Volga so dangerous that what was shipped across the river was mostly more soldiers and ammunition, not food. Many Russian soldiers were killed while crossing the river to Stalingrad or while being evacuated back after being wounded in the city.
The German advantage in heavy fire by tanks and dive bombers was gradually matched by Russian artillery reinforcements of all types, from mortars to rocket launchers, which were concentrated East of the Volga, where the German tanks could not sweep them, and were protected from the Stuka dive bombers by many anti aircraft guns. The Russian Air Force also significantly increased its attacks, with much more aircraft than before and better trained pilots.
For the soldiers and few remaining civilians in Stalingrad, life, while they lasted, were an endless hell of gunfire, explosions, the yell sounds of dive bombers and Katyusha rockets, smoke, dust, rubble, hunger, the smell of death everywhere, and exhaustion and fear. It was like that day after day and week after week, and it also significantly raised disease rate.
At the end of October 1942, the Russians held only a narrow strip and some isolated pockets in Stalingrad, and the Germans tried one more major attack in an attempt to take it before winter, but the exhaustion and rising shortage of ammunition stopped them, but fighting continued.
Hitler, increasingly frustrated with the standstill, pushed more divisions closer to Stalingrad and into the city, further weakening the long German flanks in the empty prairies West and South of Stalingrad. He assumed that the Russians were consuming their last remaining reserves and that therefore a massive Russian attack in the German flanks was not expected. He was wrong.
The Russian counter attack
The Germans again underestimated the Russian resources. The continued weakening of the German flanks behind Stalingrad, as more and more German units were pushed to the city, was the anticipated opportunity for which General Zhukov prepared since the battle of Stalingrad began.
Also, like in the battle of Moscow a year before, the harsh Russian winter returned, sharply reducing the German army's mobility and observation capabilities.
General Zhukov planned and prepared a massive Russian counter attack, code named operation Uranus, that would attack the German flanks at their two weakest points, 100 miles West of Stalingrad, and 100 miles South of it. The two Russian forces will meet far Southwest of Stalingrad and encircle the entire German 6th army near Stalingrad and cut its supply lines. It was a classic large scale Blitzkrieg plan, except that this time the Russians will do it to the Germans. Zhukov's goal was to win not just battle of Stalingrad but the entire campaign in South Russia.
The Russian preparations covered every operational and logistical aspect. In maximum secrecy, over a million Russian soldiers were gathered, now greatly outnumbering the Germans, and 14,000 heavy artillery guns, 1000 T-34 tanks, and 1350 aircraft. Zhukov prepared a giant surprise attack, and when the Russian concentrations were finally noticed by the Germans at the end of October, it was almost too late to do anything, but the disbelief at the German side, and Hitler's obsession, prevented them from significantly responding. When the German chief of staff suggested to abandon Stalingrad to shorten the German lines, Hitler shouted "I will not abandon the Volga!".
The Russian counter attack began on November 19, 1942, three months after the battle of Stalingrad began. It was the first fully prepared Russian attack in World War 2, and it was a great success. The Russians attacked the sectors of the German flanks held by the 3rd and 4th Romanian armies. The Russians knew, from interrogating kidnapped POWs, that the Romanian forces had the lowest morale and least supplies.
Under the sudden pressure of the massive Russian artillery and advancing tank columns, the Romanian lines collapsed within hours, and after two days the Romanians surrendered. German units moved to face the advancing Russians, but it was too late, and in four days the two spearheads of the Russian pincer movement met each other about 100km West of Stalingrad.
The besieged Germans
The entire German 6th army was now trapped in and near Stalingrad. To prevent the Germans from breaking the encirclement, the Russians expanded the corridor which separated the 6th army from the rest of the German military to a width of over 100 miles, and quickly moved 60 divisions and 1000 tanks there. But instead of breaking out of the encirclement, General von Paulus, the 6th army's commander, was immediately ordered by Hitler to remain in his position and hold it at all cost.
Hermann Goering, Hitler's deputy and head of the Luftwaffe, promised Hitler that his Luftwaffe will supply the 6th army, promising to fly 500 tons of supplies per day. Goering did not consult Luftwaffe headquarters about this and it was far beyond its ability, but it was what Hitler wanted to hear.
The air supply operation continued until the 6th army's surrender, but it flew less than 100 tons per day, much less than needed, and the Luftwaffe lost 488 cargo aircraft in it. The 6th army quickly ran out of fuel, ammunition, and food, and the German soldiers starved severely.
Only three weeks later, Field Marshal von Manstein's army group finally attacked the Russian barrier on December 12, 1942, but it could not reach the encircled 6th army. The Germans advanced just 60 kilometers in the direction of Stalingrad, before they were pushed back by a Russian counter attack.
Despite their isolation and starvation, the German 6th army kept fighting, and fortified its positions as much as its could. Hitler demanded that they'll keep on even after it was clear that they will remain isolated after von Manstein's rescue attempt failed.
When the 6th army rejected an ultimatum to surrender, the Russians started the final attack to crush it. They estimated the number of besieged Germans at 80,000 while there were over 250,000 encircled Germans.
On January 10, 1943, 47 Russian divisions attacked the 6th army from all directions. Knowing that captivity in Russia will be very cruel, the Germans kept fighting a hopeless battle.
A week later, the large German pocket was shrunk by half, pushed towards Stalingrad, and only one runway remained in German hands, and it was under fire. On January 22, 1943, the starved, frozen, and exhausted 6th army began to collapse. A week later Hitler promoted von Paulus to Field Marshal, and reminded him that no German Field Marshal was ever captured alive, but von Paulus was captured the next day in a cellar in Stalingrad.
The results of the battle of Stalingrad
On February 2, 1943, the last German resistance ended. Hitler was furious, accusing von Paulus and Goering for the tremendous losses, instead of accusing himself. The Germans lost almost 150,000 soldiers, and 91,000 more were captured by the Russians. Only 5,000 of them returned home after years in Russian prison camps. Together with the losses of their Romanian and Italian allies, the German side lost about 300,000 soldiers. The Russians lost 500,000 soldiers and civilians.
In Stalingrad, in addition to its heavy losses, the German army also lost its formidable image of being invincible. Russian soldiers everywhere now knew that they were victorious, and their morale boosted and remained high until the end of the war, which was still 2 1/2 years away. It boosted British and American morale too. In Germany, the bad news were censored, but eventually they were released and shocked German morale. It was clear that the battle of Stalingrad was a major turning point of World War 2, that the direction of the war turned against Germany. The happy Stalin promoted Zhukov to Field Marshal. He made himself a Field Marshal too, although he was a civilian.