The Battle of Stalingrad was the most brutal and bloodthirsty battle in human history. With our upcoming tour to Chechnya and Stalingrad, we decided to provide a proper look into this hellish fight between the Soviet Union and the Third Reich that claimed an estimated 1 million lives.
Located on the banks of the Volga River, the Russian city of Volgograd is a quaint city with rolling parks. Whether dining in one of the many fine restaurants in the city, walking through its rolling parks or strolling along its rivers and canals, it’s easy to forget that in 1942 this was the site of the largest confrontation of WW2 and the most brutal battle mankind has ever witnessed. 2.2 million Soviet and Nazi soldiers fought in the Battle of Stalingrad. As the dust settled, 1.8-2 million had been killed, wounded or captured. The blood-spattered Soviet victory was arguably the beginning of the end of the Third Reich. Battered and defeated, the Wehrmacht staged a gruelling retreat to Berlin, harried all the way by the Red Army.
Scars of the Battle of Stalingrad are apparent throughout the city. Whilst in a cellar bar on the outskirts of the city during my last trip, I noticed the brick walls inside the toilet were chewed up by shrapnel impacts and bullet holes. Today a place to socialize and relax, in WW2 it was undoubtedly the site of the kind of brutal hand-to-hand combat that defined the battle.
The first phase of Operation Barbarossa had failed to defeat the USSR in a single campaign or capture Moscow, but Nazi confidence was not dashed as they had a stable front running from Leningrad to Rostov, and offensives elsewhere were going well. Huge swathes of territory had been conquered, the Battle of the Atlantic was going in favour of the Germans, and Rommel had achieved a major victory on the African front with the capture of Tobruk. Hitler was confident he could defeat the Soviets within the year.
Whilst Stalin expected the Germans to try their chances at overrunning Moscow again, the Germans directed their summer campaign against southern Russia. Stalingrad was a model socialist city, an industrial stronghold that bore the name of Stalin himself. The Nazi aim was to destroy the city’s industry and blockade the Volga River to bar Soviet access to the Caspian Sea, the oilfields of the Caucasus and the delivery of lend-lease supplies via the Persian Corridor.
Both the Soviets and the Nazis attached propaganda to Stalingrad based on its name. Hitler proclaimed that after Stalingrad’s capture, all male citizens were to be killed and all women and children were to be deported because its population was “thoroughly communistic” and “especially dangerous”. The Soviets knew this. Anyone strong enough to hold a rifle was sent into the fight and anybody who retreated would be shot dead. This was to be a fight to the death.
The Battle of Stalingrad
Approaching Stalingrad, soldiers used to say: “We are entering hell.” And after spending one or two days here, they say: “No, this isn’t hell, this is ten times worse than hell.” – Vasily Chuikov
In the stifling heat of August 1942, the German offensive began. Millions of men poured into the city supported by an intense Luftwaffe aerial bombing campaign that reduced Stalingrad to a maze of rubble and destroyed buildings. Before long, the fighting degenerated into gruesome house-to-house fighting, with few prisoners taken on either side. Both sides poured reinforcements into the city, creating a hellscape of incessant gunfire and the screams of the dying. Ruined buildings provided an ideal environment for snipers and both sides trained and deployed sniper teams. Thousands would drop dead from the bullets of an unseen enemy.
The battle soon ran into the unforgiving Russian winter, and both sides had suffered horrific losses. But unknown to the Germans, the Soviets had accomplished the seemingly impossible and massed an army to obliterate the German 6th Army. As the sun rose on 19th November, Operation Uranus was launched.
Operation Uranus was a two-pronged attack targeting the weaker Romanian and Hungarian armies protecting the German Army’s flanks. The Axis forces were overrun, the two Soviet front met up in an area called Kalach on Don, succesfully surrounding the Nazi forces in what would be known as the Kessell or cauldron. Hitler ordered his men to stay and fight; any attempt at breaking free of the Soviet cordon was forbidden. The plan was that the German forces would be supplied by air and the encirclement would be broken from the outside. The rescue operation was left in the hands of Hermann Göring; it was ultimately doomed to failure. Entrapped Germans reported the few airdrops that did make it to Stalingrad contained Iron Crosses and champagne rather than critically-needed supplies.
The man in charge of the doomed German forces, Friedrich Von Paulus, knew the end was near. As the Soviets closed in around him, he received a phone call from Hitler with the news that he was to be promoted to Field Marshal. Von Paulus knew full well that no German field Marshal had ever been captured alive by an enemy, and that it was a veiled order to commit suicide. By February 1943, the Axis forces in Stalingrad had exhausted their ammunition and food and were at a fraction of their former strength. Von Paulus, furious at Hitler’s de facto suicide order, led the surrender of the remaining German forces. The worst battle in human history, that had lasted over five months, was over.
The supposed invincibility of the Nazi war machine had been shattered, and German morale was in pieces. On 30th January, the 10th anniversary of Hitler’s rise to power, Hitler chose not to speak and Goebbels read his speech instead. On the Soviet side, the victory naturally had the opposite effect. This was an enormous confidence boost and despite the long road ahead, victory was now in their sights.
The aftermath of the Battle of Stalingrad
Stalingrad was classed as the greatest defeat in the history of the German military. Naturally, the German public was not officially told of the impending disaster until the end of January 1943. Soon after, the Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, gave the famous Sportpalast Speech in Berlin, encouraging the Germans to accept a total war situation that would claim all resources and efforts from the entire population.
Despite almost total annihilation, isolated groups of fanatical Nazis continued to fight to the death, hiding in cellars and sewers and determined to die in the name of National Socialism. The condition of the troops was described as ‘pitiful’: riddled with malnutrition, disease and frostbite, most were killed or captured by the Red Army in a few weeks. Captured Germans were mostly transported to Gulag camps or kept in Stalingrad to rebuild the city. Out of almost 91,000 German prisoners captured during the battle, only around 5,000 ever returned to Germany. Most died of wounds, typhus, cold, overwork, mistreatment and malnutrition.
The Soviets rounded up a small group of senior German officers and used them for propaganda in Moscow. Von Paulus, wracked with bitterness over Hitler’s betrayal, testified for the prosecution during the Nuremberg Trials. In 1952, Von Paulus moved to Dresden in the newly formed DDR where he spent the remainder of his days defending his actions at Stalingrad, and was quoted as saying that communism was the best hope for postwar Europe. In 1955, the remaining 5,000 survivors of Stalingrad were sent to West Germany.
To explore the abundance of eerie WW2 sites left in Volgograd, join our annual Chechnya and Stalingrad tour this September!