Battle of Stalingrad. Soviet Forces in house to house battle Battle of Stalingrad. Soviet Forces in house to house battle. Photo: unknown / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

In the second of his articles marking the anniversary of Hitler’s defeat in the Russian city, Chris Bambery looks at one of the bloodiest and most important battles of the Second World War

The Battle of Stalingrad was fought from August 1942 right through to 2 February 1943, involving more than 2 million troops, often fighting at close quarters, with nearly 2 million killed or injured, including tens of thousands of Russian civilians.

The Soviet novelist and journalist Vasily Grossman, in his Tolstoyan epic Life and Fate, based on events at Stalingrad, where he was stationed, said of the battle: ‘It is like Pompeii’.

The Russian victory was the turning point in the Allied war against Hitler and would be followed by a series of great offensives westwards until finally in May 1945 the Red Army took Berlin.

Case Blu, the German offensive in the south of the Soviet Union began on 28 June 1942  seemingly successfully. In July and August, the Germans captured 625,000 Soviet prisoners and destroyed 7000 tanks, 6000 artillery pieces and 400 aircraft.

But German commanders noted that the Red Army was now retreating largely intact, preserving its forces, unlike in the previous year.

This offensive gave priority to an advance into the Caucasus towards the oilfields at Baku. Hitler needed that oil and also wished to cut oil supplies to Russia. The advance over the River Don towards the River Volga and Stalingrad had a secondary role, protecting the advance towards Baku from any Red Army assault from the north.

As the Germans approached Stalingrad, Stalin refused to evacuate the civilian population of the city, believing their presence would encourage resistance, so the bulk of its 400,000 citizens remained trapped. Workers in the city not involved in arms factories were sent to the front line as militia units, lacking arms and training, and usually mown down en masse. Women were sent to dig trenches at the front lines. Citizens noted that city and party officials and military commanders ensured their families were evacuated while ordinary people were left to await German fire.

On the evening of 23 August a German air armada approached the city to begin a bombing campaign which lasted for a week: 90 percent of the mainly wooden housing stock was destroyed. The city’s water system was inadequate, there were few air raid shelters, the fire brigade was under-equipped and the population was untrained in fire defence. The eventual number of civilian casualties will never be known but tens of thousands were killed, and tens of thousands more were captured and forced into slave labour.

As the Germans neared Stalingrad Hitler demanded its capture, seeing the city carrying the Russian dictator’s name as the very symbol of Stalin’s regime. The city was expected to fall quickly. It did not turn out like that.

As his soldiers fell back on Stalingrad, Stalin issued Order 227 on 28 July, ‘Not a step back! (Ne shagu nazad!),’ demanding that: ‘Each position, each metre of Soviet territory must be stubbornly defended, to the last drop of blood. We must cling to every inch of Soviet soil and defend it to the end!’ For Stalin this was now a war to save historic Russia, a war of revenge against the German nation. The terms ‘Soviet Union’ and ‘Communism’ were replaced by ‘Russia’ and ‘Motherland’ to emphasise the nationalism of the struggle.

The battlefield during the Stalingrad campaign
The battlefield during the Stalingrad campaign. Photo: unknown / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0


By September, the Luftwaffe had established air control over the city having bombed the city into ruins. But the German soldiers would discover those ruins provided perfect cover for defenders.

Each street, building, basement and roof was desperately fought over with the Germans dubbing the fighting Rattenkrieg (Rat Warfare); the Germans might capture a building during the day but that night the Russians would counter attack through the ceiling or cellar and take it back, so the next day the battle would commence once more. In hand to hand fighting Russian soldiers found the best weapon was a sharpened excavation spade and used them to deadly effect. The PPSh-41 submachine gun, with which they were now supplied, produced cheaply in huge numbers, was a deadly weapon.

The Russians came to understand that they had to stay as close as possible to the German lines so that Nazi tanks, artillery and air power were less and less effective. This was a battle of hand-to-hand fighting and of sniper fire. The Russians took to the tunnels and sewers under the city so that as the Germans advanced suddenly Russian troops would appear behind them. The Russians struck at night or hid in ambush.  From the east bank of the Volga their artillery kept pounding the German rear.

At the end of September the commander of the German 6th Army, General Halder, noted the ‘gradual exhaustion’ of his troops. Companies were reduced to a strength of 60 men, suffering heavy losses. Tanks were caught in a ‘dead Schwerpunkt’ [full stop] and burned out in street fighting for which they were unsuited. Having urged a withdrawal from the city Halder was dismissed by Hitler as Chief of Staff, to be replaced by Lieutenant General Friedrich Paulus.

That September, Stalin sent General Vasily Chuikov to take command of the remnants of the 62nd Army holding out in the city itself. They clung to rubble on the west bank of the Volga, with only a few hundred meters between its front lines and the river to its back.

Chuikov recalled the grim moment:

‘When I got to army headquarters I was in a vile mood. Three of my deputies had fled … But the main thing was that we had no dependable combat units, and we needed to hold out for three or four days … We immediately began to take the harshest possible actions against cowardice. On the 14th I shot the commander and commissar of one regiment, and a short while later, I shot two brigade commanders and their commissars. This caught everyone off guard. We made sure news of this got to the men.’

Whatever his brutality Chuikov won the respect of his men because he remained in the front line, in a dugout on the very banks of the Volga where he was buried alive several times by German artillery fire.

Unable to break the last vestiges of Soviet resistance, the Germans poured more and more men into the battle so that by November, the German High Command had committed 1.2 million men, or about half of its strength, facing the Red Army, to the southern front. German aircraft were diverted to the city to, badly affecting the drive on the Baku oilfields, which were never taken, and the Germans would be driven back out of the Caucasus.

Column of German prisoners of war - Battle of Stalingrad
Column of German prisoners of war – Battle of Stalingrad. Photo: unknown / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Pincer movement

The secondary element of Operation Blue, the attack in the north, had now taken precedence over what had been originally the main thrust. The German positions now were a bulge or salient into the Russian lines with exposed flanks to the north and south.

In September 1942 Stalin observed the Red Army Chief of Staff Georgy Zhukov and Deputy Defence Minister Aleksandr Vasilevsky, pouring over maps of the salient round Stalingrad and asked what was in their minds. They outlined the sketch of a plan to attack the German salient from the north and the south, advancing to the west of the city to create a classic pincer movement, trapping the Wehrmacht in the city they had destroyed. They also knew that the German forces defending those flanks had been sent to reinforce units in the city and had been replaced by Romanian, Italian and Hungarian units who were far less effective. Stalin agreed to the plan which became known as Operation Uranus.

It was vital that Chuikov maintain resistance in the city so he could provide the anvil on which the Soviet hammer would fall. Thus he was kept in the dark about Operation Uranus.

At dawn on a snowy, foggy morning of 19 November a million Soviet troops smashed through the defence lines and they hurried forward, catching the defenders by complete surprise. On 23 November, 1942, the two Red Army pincers met at Kalach, west of Stalingrad. The German 6th Army was trapped in the ruined city. Hitler’s generals urged that the 300,000 men there mount a breakout westward but he refused. His deputy and airforce commander, Hermann Göring, promised he could supply the garrison by air.

The commander charged with this task, Wolfram von Richthofen, tried to point out, to no avail,  that the Luftwaffe could only deliver 105 tonnes of supplies per day, only a fraction of the minimum 750 tonnes the 6th Army needed. In fact on the most successful day of the airlift, 19 December, the Luftwaffe delivered 262 tonnes of supplies in 154 flights.

The airforce simply did not possess sufficient transport units with the aircraft or manpower capable of meeting the task.

By late December the Red Army had overrun the main German supply base. Supply aircraft now had to fly an extra 300 kilometres to the city and faced Russian fighters and antiaircraft fire with, in total, 488 German aircraft lost, including those lost to engine failure and accidents. The 6th Army was starving and had no fuel for its tanks and transport.

One of the few German soldiers who survived the battle and captivity recalled:

‘We were so weak and exhausted and there were so many dead lying around in the open frozen stiff, that we could not bury our own comrades.’

As rations reached zero, sentries froze to death on guard duty. A typhus epidemic ravaged the survivors. Medical treatment proved impossible; the badly wounded or sick were left outside to freeze to death, as a ‘mercy’ to the longer death from starvation or infection. Rumours of cannibalism grew increasingly frequent.

Makeshift cemetery in Stalingrad winter 1943
Makeshift cemetery in Stalingrad winter 1943. Photo: unknown / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

A German relief operation did reach within 40 kilometres of Stalingrad but it could not hold that position for long. Hitler would not allow Paulus to attempt to break out and he would not defy the Fuhrer. The Red Army counter-attacked across the River Don where Italian defenders fought well but were eventually forced to withdraw. A relief operation was no longer possible.

The Red Army now prepared for the kill at Stalingrad. First, on 7 January 1943 they offered Paulus generous terms if he surrendered. Hitler refused to authorise that. The Red Army advanced into the Stalingrad pocket, taking the last two airfields. The only supplies which now reached the 6th Army were parachuted in. German units retreated into the city itself but ammunition, food, medicine and even bandages were running out.

The Russians kept back their tanks using tried and tested methods of street fighting. As they advanced deeper into the ruins they broke up enemy forces into three pockets in the north, centre and south of the city. On 31 January Russian forces reached the entrance to Paulus’s headquarters in a ruined department store. Paulus surrendered. To the north a remaining German pocket fought on until 2 February when it too surrendered.

Some 91,000 German soldiers went into Soviet captivity. Just 4 percent survived the Gulag and return to Germany.

Because of Stalinist secrecy it is difficult to calculate total losses but the most frequently quoted figure is 2,000,000 dead: 900,000 Germans and Allies, and 1,100,000 Russians, including 13,500 killed by the secret police for alleged cowardice or treason.

The victory at Stalingrad was a major turning point in the war and marked the beginning of the end for Hitler. It also inspired a growing resistance to Nazi rule across Europe. The Red Army would eventually reach and capture Berlin ending the Third Reich, with Hitler committing suicide in the ruins of his capital. In my The Second World War: A Marxist History I quote the sardonic comment of one Russian officer there: ‘Yes we got to Berlin, but did we have to go via Stalingrad?’

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

Tagged under: