As my History Hit email subscription dutifully reminded me, yesterday (as this is written), 2 February, marked the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad, which many military historians regard as the turning point in the Second World War. Of course, playing devil’s advocate, one could reasonably nitpick and argue that Stalingrad marked the turning point in the Eastern Front and/or the ground war in the European Theatre, whilst the Battle of Britain marked the turning point in Western Europe and/or the air war. (Meanwhile, of course, the Battle of Midway marked the turning point in the Pacific Theatre of WWII.)
One could argue even further from a standpoint that the Soviets and post-Soviet Russians alike don’t refer to it as the Second World War, but rather the “Great Patriotic War” (Velikaya Otechestvennaya voyna/ Вели́кая Оте́чественная война́), as their history treats their brief war against Imperial Japan via Operation August Storm, the invasion of Manchuria in August – September 1945 as an entirely separate conflict, But no matter how one slices the semantic pie, there’s no doubt that Stalingrad was one of the most decisive battles of that particular war and of all-time.
Initial German Progress
As the afore cited History Hit article states, “A five-month struggle from street to street and house to house that was deemed ‘the rat war’ by the German soldiers, it lives long in the popular imagination as the ultimate battle of endurance between two immense armies…Though it was true that the Nazi invasion of Russia had met with a setback outside Moscow in the winter of 1941, Hitler‘s forces could still be fairly confident of overall victory when they approached the southern city of Stalingrad in August 1942.”
And how could you blame the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS alike for feeling not just confident and downright cocky at the outset of the Stalingrad campaign on 23 August 1942? After all, not only had Operation Barbarossa – which had commenced 14 months prior — caught “Uncle Joe” Stalin and his generals with their proverbial shtany vniz/штаны вниз (“pants down”), but Britain was reeling from defeats in North Africa and the Far East.
Stalin ordered that his namesake city – which served as a gateway to the vital oil fields of the Caucasus – be defended at all costs, a true testament to his “meat grinder” approach to warfare. Hitler, for his part, was all too willing to grind the city’s Red Army defenders and civilian residents alike into that metaphorical meat, as he had his Luftwaffe precede the 6th Army’s land invasion with a massive aerial bombing campaign that was even more destructive than the London Blitz and rendered most of the city uninhabitable.
The infantry and armor assault soon followed, and by November, the Germans had reached their high water mark, controlling 90% of urban Stalingrad.
…to German Disaster
However, whilst the Red Army was down, it certainly wasn’t out. Marshal of the Soviet Union Georgy Zhukov had a master trick up his sleeve. Recognizing that the flanks of the invasion force were guarded not by Wehrmacht troops but rather less experienced and more poorly equipped soldiers from Nazi Germany’s allies, namely Italy, Hungary and Romania, Zhukov concocted Operation Uranus, a double-envelopment plan which would completely cut off the bulk of the enemy troops without engaging their best men at all.
The audacious plan worked, with the Italians and Romanians, though they fought bravely, quickly crumbling in the face of Zhukov’s lightning counterattacks, and by the end of November, the Germans in the rubble-infested city were totally surrounded and cut off from their supply lines. The 6th Army commanding officer, General Friedrich Wilhelm Ernst Paulus Paulus, wanted to break out of the encirclement and regroup to fight again. Hitler, in his obstinance, refused to grant permission for the attempt, arguing that it would look like a capitulation, and incorrectly assuming that it was feasible to supply an army entirely by air.
However, the 700 tons’ worth of daily supplies needed to sustain the 270,000 Axis men trapped in the center of the city was simply beyond the capabilities of 1940s transport aircraft such as the Junkers Ju-52.
Fast forward to 22 January 1943, and the Reds offered Gen. Paulus and his men surprisingly generous terms of surrender. Paulus requested permission to surrender, but not surprisingly der Fuhrer refused to grant it, instead promoting Paulus to Field Marshal; this was a hugely symbolic gesture, as no German Field Marshal had ever surrendered an army.
But reality set in on 31 January when the southern pocket collapsed, and Paulus and his subordinates, disobeying Hitler, surrendered anyway. Along with Britain’s victory at El Alamein in October 1942, this caused a seismic shift in momentum, putting Germany on the defensive for the remainder of the war.
The Vasily Zaitsev Side Story
Arguably the most famous individual hero – which kinda flies in the face of the Communist ideal that supposedly totally eschews individualism – of the Battle of Stalingrad was the legendary Soviet sniper Vasily Grigoryevich Zaitsev. Zaitsev, wielding his bolt-action Mosin-Nagant 7.62x54mmR rifle, was credited with killing 225 enemy soldiers and officers, including 11 snipers. Both the 2001 movie “Enemy at the Gates” – starring Jude Law as Zaitsev, and co-starring Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Ed Harris. and Bob Hoskins – and the 1990 non-fiction book “One Shot, One Kill” by Charles W. Sasser and Craig Roberts, offer a highly dramatized depiction of Zaitsev’s alleged individual duel with a German sniper known as Major Erwin König.
That particular showdown may been actually been apocryphal, but Zaitsev had enough undisputed kills to be recognized as a true game changer during the Battle of Stalingrad; accordingly, he was awarded the Order of Lenin, “the Gold Star” medal, and the title of the Hero of the Soviet Union.
Volgograd (Stalingrad) Today
In 1961, Stalingrad was renamed Volgograd as part of Nikita Khruschev’s de-Stalinization efforts. Astonishingly, in the present day, Putin and his Kremlin cronies are now pushing to change the city’s name back to Stalingrad! Here’s hoping that effort fails.
Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS).