Stalingrad is much more than the name of a city. It is commonly used as a synonym for the eponymous battle which was the biggest in history, and turned the course of World War II.
It is widely believed that the Battle of Stalingrad on the Eastern (Russian) Front was fought on a larger scale than aggregate military actions of the Allies on the Western (Second) and Pacific Fronts during World War II.
The readers have been asking me to write about Stalingrad. It was a challenging task as the story of Stalingrad is hard to fit into one book, let alone a single article.
When it happened
The Battle of Stalingrad started on June 17, 1942, as Nazi Germany pursued its massive offensive against the defensive Red Army at the bend of the Don and Volga Rivers.
In the period from November 19, 1942, to February 2, 1943, the Red Army launched a major counteroffensive and defeated several German armies and their Axis allies.
Before the Battle of Stalingrad
Army Group B was approaching Stalingrad. Had it been seized, the USSR would have been cut off from Caucasus.
However, the Soviets gained much military experience in the years of World War II and were holding fast. The Germans had to recall an additional tank army from the Caucasian direction and send it to Stalingrad. It was just the beginning. Later the Nazi command needed more and more soldiers in this theater of operations.
“Not one step back!”
The Battle of Stalingrad was decisive for the USSR in stopping the enemy. Soon after the German army started its offensive operation, Joseph Stalin issued Order No. 227 dated from July 28, 1942.
The order clearly stated that defeatist moods and unwarranted withdrawals would be severely punished and deserters would be shot on the spot. This notorious Order is also known for the following words: “Not one step back!”.
The truth is rather different, though. It was the officers who were executed for their panic attacks in front of subordinates. Privates were usually sent back to the battlefield or allocated to other units. The Order also enacted to form penal battalions where cowards and panic mongers could wash away their guilt with blood.
Nowadays the words “Order 200 – a summary execution!” is a Russian idiom that means instant punishment for offence.
The assault on Stalingrad
On August 23 the German army led by General F. Paulus (later Field Marshal) advanced to Stalingrad and surrounded the city. The Red Army was cut off from the mainland and got supplied only by the Volga River.
The Nazis delivered massive air strikes to shatter the morale of the city defenders. As a result, there was no building in Stalingrad that had not been damaged.
The full-fledged assault on Stalingrad began on September 13.
House-to-house fighting in Stalingrad. September of 1942. By an unknown author
Red Army soldiers were fighting for more than their home city or its streets; they defended each house and even a single storey! The civilians who had not been evacuated also filled the ranks of the city defenders.
Sometimes fighting was so severe that one house could be recaptured dozens of times!
A German corporal wrote home: “The time has come for every sensible man in Germany to curse the madness of this war. It is impossible to describe what is happening here! Everyone in Stalingrad who still possesses a head and hands, women as well as men, carries on fighting” (cited by A. Beevor).
All in all, the Nazis assaulted the city twice, let alone hundreds of smaller offensive operations.