The Most Unwise Battle
|General Paulus planning the attack on Stalingrad|
Everybody knows the basics of the battle of Stalingrad, so only a brief summary is in order. The Germans went in, and didn't come back out. Stalingrad was the turning point of the war in a strategic sense, so it is worth exploring.
|June 1, 1942 at the HQ of Army Group South in the Ukraine. Hitler with Paulus. Contrast this with the well-known picture of Hitler and Manstein planning the defense of Zaporozhye in February 1943, below.|
After his initial drive of 1941 failed to conquer the Soviet Union, Hitler built up his forces in Army Group South during the following spring. After soundly beating the Russians in their own ill-advised offensive in May 1942 (where his repetitive strategy of steadfastly holding the 'cornerposts' and turning a bulge in his own lines into a pocket actually worked for a change), Hitler set his own troops in motion.
Under Field Marshal von Bock (who replaced General Walther von Reichenau, who had died of a stroke in January), the vastly reinforced Army Group South (which received the vast majority of all reinforcement sent from Germany to Russia that spring) set off to seize as much territory as possible.
|Paulus conferring with his aides while times were still good. To his credit, he is not 300 miles behind the lines staying in a luxury hotel.|
Bock was a strange choice, having been defeated before Moscow the previous winter. He made a few moves that Hitler did not like, but they were extremely minor details in an overwhelmingly successful campaign. In fact, it was fairly amazing that the Germans even got across the Don, much less crowded up to the Volga.
Hitler, however, was extremely nervous about wasting any time whatsoever, and still nursed a grudge against von Bock from the previous May (the defense of Kharkov, which Hitler thought von Bock mishandled despite it being a massive German victory). Hitler peremptorily dismissed von Bock in mid-July due to some minor issues involving troop movements around Voronezh, which von Bock protested had been done with complete transparency "as plain as the sun."
|June 1942: Abandoned T-34 Soviet tanks by the railroad tracks. Scenes like this gave the German commanders the false impression that Soviet resistance would collapse.|
Von Bock remained retired until shot in his staff car on the last day of the war. Coincidentally, that same date when von Bock turned over command - 17 July - is the one the Soviets defined as the start of the Stalingrad campaign.
|Sixth Army men marching the dusty road to Stalingrad (Klintzsch, Federal Archive).|
General Maximilian von Weichs, a very competent officer who had been leading 2nd Army on the north flank of the Army Group South advance toward Voronezh, took over the Army Group from von Bock. At the same time, the army group was split into two parts, A and B, with Weichs in command of Army Group B which had Stalingrad as its objective; Armeegruppe A in the Caucasus Kleist was extremely competent, but his forces were under-strength for the massive objectives before him. Kleist's influence on the Stalingrad battle was negative because Hitler continually placed too much emphasis on operations in that sector.
|Oh yay! Only 13 more kilometers to Stalingrad! This gives a good indication of the territory over which the Soviet troops advanced some months later to surround the city - though then it was covered with snow. (Sautter, Federal Archive)|
The tacit but obvious 'first' goal of the German summer offensive was to seize the Soviet oil fields in the Caucasus - which goal in fact was achieved on schedule (but the retreating Soviets ruined the fields, left behind fake "oil field plans" and the wells never produced a drop of oil for the Germans).
|Panzer grenadiers advancing on Stalingrad in SdKfz 251 half tracks. The roads, of course, are mud, and the way is clear from the burning villages on the horizon.|
Another, further tacit goal, never put on paper but obvious from the map, was to continue heading south toward the friendly Iraqis and Turks (not bothering to stop at the border).
German mobile forces then - if all went well - would continue down and eventually hook up with General Rommel's troops advancing east from North Africa. This would ruin the British presence in the Middle East and provide Germany with enough oil in perpetuity to fuel its military machine. To accomplish this, a 'block' was needed at Stalingrad to hold off Soviet forces concentrated in the north for the defense of Moscow).
|This is what awaits: German 81mm mortar crew beside knocked out T-34, September 17, 1942|
Yes, that plan sounds grandiose, and it was, but from a grand strategic perspective it made perfect sense - so long as the Soviets could not intervene south and west of Stalingrad. The German tactical problem was seen more as occupying vast stretches of empty territory and preventing Soviet counterstrokes from the Moscow region than as overcoming a deadly and committed enemy.
Stalingrad was planned to serve as little more than the defensive anchor to hold back the Soviets on the north flank; there never was any plan to advance further east from Stalingrad except in a south-easterly direction down the Volga toward Astrakhan. Stalingrad itself was of little use, though from there the Germans could (and did for a while) stop Soviet river traffic on the vital Volga River. It was just a small factory town whose only real value was its location.
|Marching into Stalingrad. They go in... but they don't come back out.|
Splitting his forces with the two new Army Groups - which were Army Groups in name only because of the inclusion of unreliable armies from Italy, Hungary and Romania - Hitler was confident and at first sent only the large Sixth Army under General Paulus toward the most important objective, Stalingrad.
|Hungarian officers near Stalingrad 1942.|
He sent General Hermann Hoth's Fourth Panzer Army due south to help with the Caucusus campaign. A couple of weeks later, though, he became nervous and turned Hoth northeast toward Stalingrad again. The allied armies were called upon as well to guard the flanks of the advance.
|"Hi, boys!" Ivan carefully set up this skeleton for the advancing Wehrmacht troops nearing Stalingrad as a kind of practical joke. The German soldiers indeed appear amused. Quite amused.|
All Paulus with his Sixth Army was supposed to do was take the city of Stalingrad and then sit tight. In fact, according to the original Hitler directive, he didn't even have to take the city - just bring it under artillery fire. The Don line to the northwest was more important to Hitler than the Volga one, since there were no plans at any time to actually cross the Volga into Asia.
The late diversion of Hoth's tanks to assist Paulus by coming up from the southwest while Paulus drove in from the northeast was considered sufficient to seal the deal. From all appearances, Soviet resistance was collapsing and the occupation of the city fairly routine.
The two armies, though, weren't enough. The Soviets were purposefully retreating - how purposefully is still a matter of some debate - and keeping their forces largely intact. Basically, the Germans had to keep chasing the Soviets further and further to the east. This was possible, but every mile further east strained German supplies that much more and required the Germans to defend more ground on their flanks against an as-yet undefeated enemy.
|A fountain called "Children's Dance" on the station square of Stalingrad after the August 23, 1942 raid. The station itself is ablaze.|
Luftwaffe General Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen sent his bombers in on 23 August 1942 to soften up the city. Stalingrad was still at that point operating under relatively normal conditions, more or less.
It wasn't afterwards.
The same picture as above in black and white - September 17, 1942 - a turning point that nobody recognized at the time. Sometimes, black and white is more apt.|
Sixth Army was delayed more by lack of fuel than by the Soviets, though the Soviets did mount several fairly ineffective counterattacks from the north. Paulus got through to save the panzers just in time, but the incident was an early indication of just how stretched the Wehrmacht advance was becoming.
|Soviet soldiers at the Red October factory in Stalingrad 1942. The Soviet photographers loved to show the soldiers in heroic poses, but the shots are still invaluable for showing the environment and attire of the men.|
By early September, Paulus and Hoth had a continuous line that touched the Volga in several places to the north and south, but they still had virtually the entire city left to occupy. Technically, this was not required, as the only real value to Stalingrad was closing the Volga and establishing a secure defensive line in the vicinity; this could be accomplished without actually occupying Stalingrad and was accomplished by mid-September.
However, as time went on, Hitler completely lost his perspective and insisted on the total capture of the largely worthless third-tier city. Troops were fed in continuously, but still their offensive capability dropped. It was a modern version of the Verdun meatgrinder.
Snipers became extremely useful during the battle because of the restricted fighting space. Both sides used them, and they brought in some of their best talent. Snipers would hide for hours and hours in a blind to finally get a shot. They used all the tricks of the trade, and many lost their lives.
|Soviet sniper Viktor Medvedev another hero of the Stalingrad battle. Unlike Passar, he's holding his standard sniper rifle equipped with the scope. The photographer may have been having some fun with these shots, but they work.|
Tanks were of little utility in the confined space, and every ruined building became a fortress for the defenders. Still, the Germans advanced steadily, and in fact were advancing right up until the day of the Soviet counterstroke.
|This obviously is a nicely framed, poetic propaganda shot. However, let us take a moment to honor the civilians of Stalingrad who suffered without the opportunity to fight back.|
By the end of September, they had confined the Soviets to narrow slices along the river, where defending Soviet General Chuikov and his troops, as he put it, 'sat with our feet dangling in the Volga.' Supplies for the trapped Soviet forces were possible only at night across the broad river.
Despite everything, the Germans remained on the offensive through October and November while suffering vicious troop attrition due to the house-to-house battles. Soviet General Aleksandr Rodimtsev in command of 13th Guards Rifle Division (this was an honorary designation conferred in January 1942) led his troops across the Volga at night just in time to hold a key sector of the front and thereby became a propaganda hero (which also earned him some resentment from others who also were fighting with extreme bravery).
A Hero of the Soviet Union from the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, something that many others gladly risked their lives to achieve due to the glory and lifetime benefits, Rodimtsev earned an extraordinarily rare second such award due to his efforts at Stalingrad. Somewhat oddly for a man who was among the most decorated Soviet soldiers of the war, he did not ascend to the highest ranks of the military during his long post-war service. It may have had something to do with that resentment.
|General Rodimtsev during the battle of Stalingrad, 1942.|
The Germans, though, kept pressing. In fact, on the very day of the Soviet counter-offensive 'Uranus' against the defending flank troops along the rivers north and south, 19 November, the Sixth Army forces within the city occupied even more Stalingrad buildings. Offensive operations in Stalingrad only stopped that night pursuant to an order from Weichs.
Paulus was stretched too thin and did not have enough troops within the city to defend against the encircling Soviet armies outside it. Soviet troops completed their double envelopment of the city by 23 November, cutting the rail supply lines. A later offensive against the Italian 8th Army, holding a stretch of the Don River line north of the city, later broadened the Soviet offensive, ultimately leading to loss of the closest airports supplying 6th Army in Stalingrad.
General Hoth, who remained outside the city with part of Fourth Panzer Army, launched the relief attempt Operation Winter Storm on December 12, 1942. After getting about halfway to the city, though, it failed by Christmas and was sent reeling westward. There was an entire German Army Group just to the south that could have supplied more troops for the relief, but Hitler refused to authorize any transfers, fearing loss of territory there as well.
|Soviet troops advance through a trench at Stalingrad|
Valiant air supply efforts also failed, though many were flown out of the doomed city. Paulus and his corps commander General der Infanterie (Lt. General) Karl Strecker (11th Corps) individually surrendered January 31-February 2 1943, and very few Wehrmacht POWs aside from Paulus lived to see Germany again.
Strecker held out for a couple of days after Paulus, but it was completely hopeless and his men essentially were in an armed prison camp during that time, with nowhere to go and nothing to do. His last message, and the last German message from Stalingrad, was:
XI Corps, with its six divisions, has done its duty to the last. Long live the Fuhrer! Long live Germany! - Strecker.Strecker himself did survive captivity. Senior officers received better treatment than the ranks, at least during the war, though at least one general officer, Field Marshal Paul Ludwig Ewald von Kleist, who was captured at the end of the war did die from mistreatment. Strecker died in Austria in 1973 after being held captive - like the other Stalingrad prisoners - until 1955. Paulus survived captivity also, though his movements were never completely free, and died in Dresden, East Germany in 1957.
|Advancing on the outskirts, mostly small worker settlements|
|Aerial view, 1942 (Niemann, Federal Archive)|
|Camels were common at Stalingrad as pack animals|
|Children of Stalingrad in a bunker. Vicious air attacks commenced on August 23, 1942|
|The city burning, civilians scrambling|
|A German mortar squad. Note the mortar baseplate.|
|Probably October 1942, note the gloves|
|A German machine gun squad|
German photographers had an easy job finding heroic-looking Wehrmacht soldiers for their propaganda - it was easy to look heroic surrounded by devastation and destruction. Some of these photos are from the German Federal Archives.
|German officers conferring in front of a still-working halftrack, October/November 1942.|
|One of Paulus' last messages referenced the Swastika flag flying over the central square in Stalingrad and that he and and his men intended to fight it out to the end "under this symbol."|
|This photo gets a lot of attention these days. (Gerrymann, Federal Archive).|
|A Romanian ally of Germany, guarding the flanks. After they fled in November, the ground was littered with their distinctive helmets, marking their spot (Ang, Federal Archive).|
|Soviet propaganda photo from Operation Uranus|
Soviets attack on 19 November 1942. The Germans were surrounded by 23 November 1942.|
|Soviets on the attack, 19 November 1942|
|Germans manning an antitank gun in front of what appears to be the Communist party headquarters|
|German tank Pz.Kpfw. IV Ausf. G (Sd.Kfz. 161/2) during Operation Wintergewitter, the weak rescue attempt. This is near the village of Kotelnikovo. The machine has “Eastern” tracks (Ostketten), December 1942.|
|German POWs shuffling through the ruins. The percentages state that out of all the prisoners to be seen in this photograph, one and one only would live to see Germany again some time in the 1950s.|
|The Soviet guards offered some human kindnesses at times to the captured Germans, but in any event they had little enough themselves.|
|Captured saddles and other German equipment|
|Weapons collection afterwards.|
Below: the beauty of peace: Returned residents of Stalingrad take a stroll through a park where Luftwaffe planes, abandoned by the Germans, are lined up as relics of the battle. From left to right: reconnaissance Focke-Wulf Fw 189A, dive bomber Junkers Ju 87B / R "Stuka," fighter Messerschmitt BF.109F / G. The photo was taken in the spring 1944 and green has returned to the battlefield.
|Abandoned German aircraft in 1944. That appears to be a FW-189 on the left, a Stuka Ju 87 in the background. They'd be worth quite a lot of money now.|
In the picture below, taken five years after the end of the battle, Stalingrad is still in ruins. Transport is still scarce and the old man here has engaged a Bactrian camel to pull his cart. The big ruined building in the background is Stalingrad's No. 1 train station. Life goes on.
|Five years later, the city still in ruins|
|The land of sunflowers and battle debris: Soviet T-26 Tank abandoned during the retreat of Soviet troops on the western outskirts of Stalingrad in 1942.|
|The city (Volgograd) now|
Here are some more photos of Stalingrad which amplify what is above:2014
|Fighting in the Red October factory|
|Another shot of the Red October factory, this time showing some Soviet soldiers at the gate.|
|Soldiers attacking, could be either side|
|Soviets on the attack|
|The victory flag is raised over the central plaza, heralding an end to the battle. This scene may look vaguely familiar to Call of Duty fans.|
|Local children, colorized|
|Soviet troops enter the burning city|
|Soviets pass an abandoned German 37 mm gun PaK 35/36. This appears to be the central square with the Communist party headquarters|
|This is right after the end, there were dead bodies everywhere|
|Prisoner column near Stalingrad (Ang, Federal Archive).|
|Assuming 50 men being led to prison here, only about three - perhaps those three in the front row - ever made it home to Germany. The rest died of starvation, overwork, mistreatment, "trying to escape," torture... you know the drill.|
|German graves right after the battle|