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The Stalingrad Battle
In spring 1942 Stalin undertook a badly prepared attack on Kharkov. It was swallowed by German counteroffensive. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops were surrounded. All the Russian reserves were concentrated to protect Moscow, where Stalin expected the new offensive. Germans took him by surprise again.
On June 28, 1942, Hitler’s forces began major offensive in the south, aiming at the Caucasian oilfields and Stalingrad. By July 5, Germans were already at Voronezh. The situation was critical for the Red Army. On July 20 Hitler told to his Chief of stuff: "The Russian is finished".
German 6th Army, the conqueror of Paris in 1940, was the spearhead of the Stalingrad offence. The Red Army was retreating with battles. Stalin issued his famous order # 227, "Not one step back".
On August 23, 1942, precisely at 18:00, one thousand airplanes began to drop incendiary bombs on Stalingrad. In that city of 600,000 people, there were many wooden buildings, gas tanks and fuel tanks for industries. Stalingrad was heavily hit by air attack; one raid of 600 planes started vast fires and killed 40,000 civilians.
On August 23, Wehrmacht was in the Stalingrad suburbs, German tanks reached the Volga river. At that time, Soviet 62nd Army was not in the city yet. The first attacks of the German panzers were taken by a single division of NKVD and some workers from the city tractor factory.
When the Germans entered Stalingrad, they saw nothing but ruins. But surprisingly, there was life in those ruins, and that life didn't even think about surrender. The word "surrender" was not even in the vocabulary of Russian soldiers and civilians trapped in the city. Thousands of micro battles erupted all over the streets of what used to be a city just weeks ago. Everybody was fighting, everything was exploding, everywhere was death. Wehrmacht met the toughest resistance in those ruins, and Stalingrad came into the history of WWII as one of the worst experiences for the German army.
"The Germans obviously thought that the fate of the town had been settled," wrote Vasily Chuikov, the Russian commander. "We saw drunken Germans jumping down from their trucks, playing mouth organs, shouting like madmen and dancing on the pavements." They penetrated to within two hundred yards of his command post.
Hitler was already claiming total and impending victory (just like Napoleon once, in 1812). It looked like it was over… But it was not. Germans met severe resistance in the streets of Stalingrad. They had to fight for every house. A German general said: "The mile, as a measure of distance, was replaced by the yard ..."
General Chuikov, the commander of Soviet 62nd Army, threw in every last reserve. Everything that could shoot was on the streets, everything that could fly was in the sky. But his troops were outnumbered and could not stop the German advancement. By the end of November Wehrmacht cut through the Stalingrad, cutting 62nd Army in two parts. But it still didn't mean the end of it. Shrinking and weakening Red Army was stubbornly fighting. Particularly severe clashes took place over the Mamaev Mound. The hill changed hands at least 8 times.
One house in Stalingrad was defended by a single platoon of sergeant Pavlov. That house, known as "Pavlov’s house", became a symbol of determination of Russians to hold the city no matter what. Completely surrounded by Germans, Pavlov’s soldiers were holding the constantly attacked house until the relief came. That intensive fighting was going on for 59 (fifty nine !!!) days.
In many books on Stalingrad one can find the same quote over and over again. It is a record from the diary of 62nd Army, describing the intensity of fighting for the Central Station in Stalingrad, which changed hands fifteen times: "0800 Station in enemy hands. 0840 Station recaptured. 0940 Station retaken by enemy. 1040 Enemy ... 600 meters from Army command post … 1320 Station in our hands."
"At the Central Station, a battalion of Soviet Guardsmen dug in behind smashed railroad cars and platforms. Bombed and shelled, 'the station buildings were on fire, the walls burst apart, the iron buckled'. The survivors moved to a nearby ruin where, tormented by thirst, they fired at drainpipes to see if any water would drip out. During the night, German sappers blew up the wall separating the room holding the Russians from the German-held part of the building and threw in grenades. An attack cut the battalion in two and the headquarters staff was trapped inside the Univermag department store where the battalion commander was killed in hand-to-hand fighting. The last forty men of the battalion pulled back to a building on the Volga. They set up a heavy machine-gun in the basement and broke down the walls at the top of the building to prepare lumps of stone and wood to hurl at the Germans. They had no water and only a few pounds of scorched grain to eat. After five days, a survivor wrote, 'the basement was full of wounded; only twelve men were still able to fight'. The battalion nurse was dying of a chest wound. A German tank ground forward and a Russian slipped out with the last antitank rifle rounds to deal with it. He was captured by German tommygunners. Apparently, he persuaded his captors that the Russians had run out of ammunition, because the Germans 'came impudently out of their shelter, standing up and shouting'. The last belt of machine-gun cartridges was fired into them and 'an hour later they led our anti-tank rifleman on to a heap of ruins and shot him in front of our eyes'. More squat German tanks appeared and reduced the building with point-blank fire. At night, six survivors of the battalion freed themselves from the rubble and struggled to the Volga."
German air-force, Luftwaffe, was making up to 3000 sorties a day. Germans were superior in airpower and artillery. To neutralize it, general Chuikov directed his troops to "hug" the Germans, to remain in a close combat so that German commanders could not use airstrikes without endangering their own men. (It’s very symbolic that general Chuikov, later Marshal, the hero of Stalingrad defense, became later, in 1945, a conqueror of Berlin…)
The city was practically on its own. Red Army could not even help with the replenishments, they just weren't reaching the city. They would have to cross the Volga river under the German fire. The survivors of those crossings said some days the river was red with the blood. The whole battle was a complete nightmare for the both sides.
Fighting never stopped. It could slow down at times, and then erupt with new energy, any time of the day. With all the technology and equipment involved, there were hand-to-hand fights all over the Stalingrad. Russians practiced night attacks on the isolated German units. They would use knives and bayonets in such a close combat. None of the armies of WWII were really trained for the knife fights, nobody expected that kind of warfare, neither Germans nor Russians. Perhaps, that type of fighting suited fatalistic Russians better then Germans. Germans who fought on the Eastern Front remarked often that Russians found some inspiration in the close combat, and in desperate situations fought with some crazy passion. And Stalingrad definitely seemed to be a desperate situation for Russians surrounded and outnumbered in the ruins of what used to be a city.
The intensity of fighting can be seen from what one Wehrmacht lieutenant wrote: "We have fought during fifteen days for a single house. The front is a corridor between burnt-out rooms; it is the thin ceiling between two floors ... From story to story, faces black with sweat, we bombard each other with grenades in the middle of explosions, clouds of dust and smoke, heaps of mortar, floods of blood, fragments of furniture and human beings ... The street is no longer measured by meters but by corpses ... Stalingrad is no longer a town. By day it is an enormous cloud of burning, blinding smoke; it is a vast furnace lit by the reflection of the flames. And when night arrives, one of those scorching howling bleeding nights, the dogs plunge into the Volga and swim desperately to gain the other bank. The nights of Stalingrad are a terror for them. Animals flee this hell; the hardest stones cannot bear it for long; only men endure."
On November 19, a Russian counter-offensive began (coded as operation "Uranis". Wehrmacht was taken by surprise and could not hold the front. On Novermber 23 two wings of the Red Army met. The German 6th Army and 4th Panzer Army, about 300,000 men, were trapped in a pocket 35 miles wide and 20 miles from north to south. On February 2, Field Marshal surrendered, with 23 generals, 2500 other officers and 90,000 privates.
Even before the Stalingrad German casualties on the Eastern front were over 1.5 million. … Paulus’s army of 300,000 had been squandered at Stalingrad.
Photo: Red Army assault squad in the ruins of Stalingrad
Photo: The remains of the German 6th Army marching into captivity
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