On Thursday, February 2, Russia celebrates the 80th anniversary of the end of the Battle of Stalingrad, one of the bloodiest and most brutal battles in world history. The word “Stalingrad” has long lost its toponymic meaning, becoming a household word. Much earlier than it disappeared from maps. It has become a symbol of courage, desperate, sometimes irrational heroism, as well as the amazing patience and sacrifice of the Russian people – soldiers and residents of the city.
The Battle of Stalingrad is the whole Great Patriotic War in miniature. A catastrophic start aggravated by their own mistakes, a long painful retreat with huge losses, the most difficult defense at the last line and going on the offensive with the complete destruction of the enemy. Soviet troops began this battle inexperienced and poorly armed compared to the enemy, and ended up being many times stronger in quality and quantity than the enemy. And most importantly – morally.
After Stalingrad, the whole country believed in victory. This was the critical moment of the war, its apogee and turning point.
Although it is generally accepted that the Battle of Stalingrad began in the summer, it is impossible to understand it without knowing about the previous events. It is impossible to explain how the city, which was still 600 km from the front line in May, found itself in the epicenter of hostilities in July. Therefore, we should first turn to the events of the spring of 1942.
The main strategic outcome of 1941 was the collapse of the Barbarossa plan. The Germans, although they achieved tremendous success by occupying all of Belarus and the Baltic states and almost all of Ukraine, still could not end the war with a swift blitzkrieg. Now they had to change their strategy and make new plans.
Disputes about the location of the main attack on the company in 1942 were conducted in Berlin all winter, as a result, the German command settled on the fact that the southern direction would become a priority. The main goal was to capture the Caucasus and access to the Grozny and Baku oil fields.
The Germans needed fuel for their tanks and aircraft, and at the same time they wanted to deprive the Red Army of fuel, because the Arctic and Siberian oil in the 1940s had not yet been developed to the proper extent and the main supply of fuel and lubricants came from the Caucasus.
Naturally, all the available reserves of the Wehrmacht were concentrated precisely in the south, primarily in the Kharkov region, and intelligence played a tricky game, trying to convince the enemy that the main blow would still be directed at Moscow.
The Germans generally won this game. From a variety of intelligence, our command was never able to form an accurate idea of \u200b\u200b the intentions of the enemy, but leaned precisely towards the central metropolitan direction. It was there that the main reserves of the Stavka were concentrated. At the same time, the winter successes and victory near Moscow inspired the Soviet leadership, and Stalin demanded active offensive actions.
The order of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief No. 130 dated May 1, 1942 stated:
“I order the entire Red Army to ensure that 1942 becomes the year of the final defeat of the Nazi troops and the liberation of Soviet land from the Nazi scoundrels.”
During the winter respite, the Soviet command managed to form and equip nine reserve armies. According to the decision of the Headquarters, they were supposed to be used for attacking operations in different sectors of the front, in order to “consistently carry out a number of strategic operations in different directions in order to force the enemy to disperse his reserves, to prevent him from creating a strong grouping to repel an offensive in any of the points.”
Specific directions were offered by the headquarters of the fronts. So, the commander of the troops of the South-Western direction, Marshal of the Soviet Union S.K. Timoshenko and a member of the Military Council N.S. Khrushchev initiated an offensive in the Kharkov region. It was supposed to attack from the bridgehead near the village of Barvenkovo in the direction of Kharkov and further to Dnepropetrovsk.
In addition to the troops of the Southwestern Front, the troops of the Bryansk and Southern Fronts advancing in the Belgorod region were to take part in the operation.
Subsequently, it became known that the Germans themselves were going to attack and destroy the Barvenkovo bridgehead, for which they concentrated large forces in this area, which then had to go to the Caucasus. The Wehrmacht operation was scheduled for May 18th. And ours, not having accurate data about the intentions of the enemy, launched an offensive from this bridgehead on May 12.
At first, the Germans were somewhat taken aback, and for the first five days the Red Army confidently moved forward (from 35 to 65 km in depth), freeing large territories and coming close to Kharkov. Later it turned out that it was a game of cat and mouse. Field Marshal Fedor von Bock, who commanded Army Group South, deliberately let our troops through, regrouping his own forces.
On May 17, the 1st Panzer Army of Ewald von Kleist attacked the rear of the advancing units of the Red Army.
Timoshenko reported the incident to Moscow, asking for reinforcements. Alexander Vasilevsky, who had just assumed the post of Chief of the General Staff, proposed to withdraw troops from the Barvenkovsky ledge, but Stalin did not give permission to withdraw, citing the fact that Timoshenko and Khrushchev did not ask for a retreat and promised to rectify the situation on their own.
The situation was catastrophic: 270 thousand Soviet soldiers ended up in the Barvenkovo trap. Every day losing combat effectiveness due to lack of ammunition and fuel, they tried to break through to the east, but the Germans were ready for this.
In addition, they had complete air superiority, and the encircled did not have air defense systems – the Germans almost without interference shot them from the air. Only a tenth of those surrounded, naturally, without heavy weapons, managed to break through, the rest died or were captured. Many cases are known when generals and officers in hopeless situations killed themselves.
The loss of almost a quarter of a million soldiers exposed the southwestern direction, making it extremely easy for the Germans in the upcoming offensive campaign. The road to Stalingrad was open.
Not one step back
Army Group “South” rushed into the gap, and the defeated Soviet troops rolled back to the east. Timoshenko reported to Headquarters that the army was “very upset and retreated in uncontrollable groups of fighters.”
Conceived German motorized units overtook the Soviet retreating units, and those, completely exhausted, fell into the encirclement right on the march. Many died under enemy air strikes. Attempts by individual units to take up defensive positions in most cases ended in encirclement – the Germans did not attack head-on, but easily bypassed the dug-in units. The steppe expanses and dry summer weather only made the task easier for the enemy.
It was a terrible time. Chaos reigned all around. The supply system completely collapsed, the units retreated hungry, without ammunition. Naturally, the losses were enormous.
But mistakes were made not only by Soviet generals. On June 30, 1942, the German command adopted a new plan of action, called “Braunschweig”, which replaced the previously developed “Operation Blau”.
In accordance with the new plan, Army Group South was divided into two independent formations: one was to attack in the direction of Stalingrad (Army Group B), the other in the Caucasus (Group A). So the direction to Stalingrad, which was initially considered only auxiliary, has now become one of the two main ones.
The “Stalingrad” army group was made up of the 4th Panzer Army of Hermann Hoth and the 6th Army of Friedrich Paulus, who took over the overall command of Group B. The “Caucasian” Group A was headed by Wilhelm List.
It is obvious that the change in plans was caused by the decisive successes of the German troops in May-June and the neglect of the enemy. Hitler was sure that the Soviet troops were finally defeated and demoralized so much that they would no longer be able to offer serious resistance. Paulus was on his side, but Fedor von Bock, who led the entire South group, opposed it. He believed that the stubbornness of the Soviet soldiers should not be underestimated, and the dispersion of forces could cost the Wehrmacht dearly.
As a result, the old warrior, by the way, who had Russian roots (hence the name Fedor) was dismissed, and his headquarters was abolished. Hitler retained overall command of the southern direction.
Paulus promised to take Stalingrad by August. The general simply calculated how long it would take to march to the city if the troops were to pass through the usual daytime march per day. He did not even take into account the resistance of our troops.
The command of the front, as well as most of the armies and divisions, really lost control of the situation, but it cannot be said that the entire military leadership was confused. As soon as it became clear that Stalingrad would be one of the main directions of the enemy’s offensive, the Stalingrad Front was created, which took up defense on the distant approaches. It consisted of the remnants of the retreating units and the approaching reserve, which took the main blow, primarily the 62nd and 64th armies.
At first, Marshal Timoshenko led the front, but soon General Vasily Gordov replaced him. In 1950, he would be shot for careless anti-Stalinist speeches, and his name struck off the list of Stalingrad heroes.
The Stalingrad front had an almost twofold advantage over the enemy in numbers, but was greatly inferior in artillery, tanks and aircraft. And most importantly, in vehicles, which was extremely important in a maneuver war in the steppe expanses. Unable to create a single front line, our troops constantly counterattacked. This held back the advance of the enemy, but led to heavy losses in personnel.
However, in the current critical situation, there was probably no other way out. It was necessary to buy time to cling to the Don as a line of defense. Unfortunately, this was not possible and the retreat continued.
In this catastrophic situation, the command and leadership of the country took a desperate step: on July 28, order No. 227 was issued, which went down in history as the order “Not a step back.” Here are some excerpts from it:
“Each commander, every Red Army soldier … must understand that our means are not unlimited … The territory of the USSR, which the enemy has captured and is striving to capture, is bread and other products for the army and rear, metal and fuel for industry, factories, factories supplying the army with weapons and ammunition, railroads.
After the loss of Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States, Donbass and other regions, we have less territory, therefore, there are much fewer people, bread, metal, plants, and factories … We no longer have dominance over the Germans either in human resources or in grain reserves. To retreat further means to ruin ourselves and at the same time ruin our Motherland.
…Not one step back! This should now be our main call.
… From now on, those retreating from a combat position without an order from above are traitors to the Motherland…
1. To the military councils of the fronts and, above all, to the commanders of the fronts:
a) to unconditionally liquidate retreating moods among the troops and to suppress with an iron fist the propaganda that we can and must supposedly retreat further to the east, that there will be no harm supposedly from such a retreat;
b) unconditionally remove from their posts and send them to Headquarters to bring to court military commanders of the armies who allowed the unauthorized withdrawal of troops from their positions, without an order from the front command;
c) to form within the front from one to three (depending on the situation) penal battalions (800 people each), where to send medium and senior commanders and relevant political workers of all branches of the military who are guilty of violating discipline due to cowardice or instability, and put them on more difficult sections of the front, in order to give them the opportunity to atone for their crimes against the Motherland with blood.
2. To the military councils of the armies and, above all, to the commanders of the armies:
a) unconditionally remove from their posts the commanders and commissars of corps and divisions who allowed unauthorized withdrawal of troops from their positions without an order from the army command, and send them to the military council of the front to be brought before a military court;
b) form within the army 3-5 well-armed barrage detachments (up to 200 people each), place them in the immediate rear of unstable divisions and oblige them, in case of panic and disorderly withdrawal of parts of the division, to shoot alarmists and cowards on the spot and thereby help honest fighters divisions to fulfill their duty to the Motherland;
c) to form within the army from five to ten (depending on the situation) penal companies (from 150 to 200 people each), where to send ordinary soldiers and junior commanders who are guilty of violating discipline due to cowardice or instability, and put them in difficult areas army to give them the opportunity to atone for their crimes against the Motherland with blood.
The order was cruel, but the timing was cruel. The 227th still causes a lot of controversy, but it must be admitted: only such terrible measures made it possible to turn the tide.
Battle on the ruins
Stalingrad before the war had about half a million inhabitants. But with the refugees flooding the city, there were much more civilians. It was the largest industrial center, dozens of enterprises of which supplied the entire southern sector of the front with guns, shells, and tanks.
In 1941, until the enterprises evacuated to the east were operating at full capacity, the Stalingrad Tractor Plant was the largest manufacturer of the famous T-34s.
The secretary of the Stalingrad regional committee, Alexei Chuyanov, requested permission in July to evacuate the civilian population, but Stalin personally forbade it. “Stop the panic! Stalingrad will not be surrendered,” he said in a telephone conversation with Chuyanov. The Supreme Commander demanded that the factories continue to work, and that the front command and the city leadership remain in place.
As a result, only evacuation hospitals and their attendants were able to be transported to the other side of the Volga, because Stalingrad was also the largest evacuation and transshipment center through which tens of thousands of seriously wounded soldiers were sent to the rear. In total, about 100 thousand inhabitants managed to cross to the other side, how many remained in the city – no one really counted.
By the 20th of August, the enemy came close to the city. On the 22nd, a real firestorm hit Stalingrad: 600 Luftwaffe aircraft attacked the defenseless city. They dropped bombs and returned again, practically without resistance – by this time all Soviet airfields had been captured or destroyed by the rapid strikes of enemy tank groups.
Most of the Soviet pilots, already in full view of the enemy, managed to lift the combat vehicles into the air and fly over the Volga, but they had not yet managed to organize the delivery of fuel and ammunition. They could only look at the burning city and accumulate hatred.
On August 23, the assault on the city’s defense lines prepared by the residents began. The Germans reached the Volga south and north of Stalingrad, so that the city was surrounded. It was defended by the departed units of the 62nd and 64th armies, the police, the marines of the Volga flotilla, and the people’s militia.
The repaired tanks went straight from the tractor factory into battle, the workers themselves sat down at the levers. The vehicles were understaffed, almost all without radios and sights, so they could only fire direct fire at close range. Cars with faulty engines were buried in the ground and used as firing points.
All anti-aircraft batteries of the city, staffed by female students of local universities and technical schools, were withdrawn to positions. Putting their guns on direct fire, they met the approaching German tanks. Anti-aircraft guns have no protection against fragments, and under oncoming fire the girls were doomed, but none of them left their positions.
It was not possible to keep the defensive fortifications on the border of the city, but the enemy’s advance slowed down for almost a week. By the beginning of September, fighting was already going on in the city itself, among the ruins – there were no longer any buildings in Stalingrad.
The Germans tried to throw Soviet troops into the Volga, but they literally clung to every meter. If the enemy had succeeded in carrying out the plan, then it would have been practically impossible to restore the situation, because it would have been necessary to cross the Volga under enemy fire.
On September 13, Paulus sent troops to the decisive assault. The superiority of the Germans was overwhelming, because now every shell, cartridge and even a piece of bread, Soviet soldiers had to be transported across the Volga at night under the fire of enemy artillery and aircraft. There was no heavy equipment left, there were practically no guns on the bridgehead either. Reinforcements could only arrive at night.
As a result, the soldiers of the Red Army managed to keep a narrow strip 25 km long along the front and with a depth of 2.5 km to 200 m. The Germans managed to reach the Volga several times, cutting through the Soviet units, but at night fresh soldiers crossed over and repelled the enemy with a swift attack.
Terrible battles unfolded for Mamaev Kurgan – a height from which the whole city and the Volga were visible. When this position was in the hands of the enemy, the Germans could directly bombard the river, which made it difficult to cross and led to huge losses.
There were fights for every house, every street, and every height. The railway station changed hands 13 times. To protect themselves from artillery and enemy aircraft, the Red Army tried to be located as close as possible to the positions of the enemy, literally 30-40 steps away. The whole space was shot through, it was impossible to raise your head. Soviet artillery was concentrated behind the Volga and also shot at city blocks, constantly disturbing the Germans. They responded with heavy fire at the crossing.
The commander of the 62nd Army, General Vasily Chuikov, was constantly in Stalingrad. It was he who came up with the tactics of close combat, he also ordered the soldiers to be re-equipped, to use short-barreled submachine guns, light machine guns and grenades instead of rifles and heavy machine guns on the bridgehead. He also owns the idea of creating “assault groups” that acted independently.
One of these was the group of Sergeant Yakov Pavlov, who for almost two months held a strategically important position, which later received the name “Pavlov’s house”. Chuikov relied on the initiative of the fighters, their ingenuity and courage, trusted them. Everything that the Germans occupied during the day, his fighters beat off at night.
Both sides actively used snipers in Stalingrad. The most famous was the Chelyabinsk hunter Vasily Zaitsev, who killed 225 enemies during the battle, including 11 snipers.
Especially against him, a super shooter, the head of the sniper school, Major Koenig, was discharged from Germany, but the Ural hunter won this duel as well.
The losses of the Red Army in the battles for the bridgehead were terrible, although the exact figures have not yet been named. Every night, thousands of wounded were brought to the left bank, and fresh soldiers were brought back, and every day Chuikov’s troops suffered new losses. But they held on. No matter how hard the Germans tried to throw a brave garrison into the river, they could not do it. All autumn the fighters held the city.
In November, frosts began – by the middle of the month the temperature approached the mark of -20 degrees. Both ours and the Germans suffered, and most of all, the civilian population remaining in the city.
However, there were already very few people: many died during the bombing, some managed to be transported across the Volga, and most went west, to the territories occupied by the enemy, if only to get away from the Stalingrad nightmare.
Wrath of Uranus
Why were such sacrifices necessary? Why was it necessary to hold the ruined, in fact, already destroyed city? The answer to this was received on November 19, when the Soviet troops went on the offensive in the deep rear of the Paulus group that had stormed Stalingrad.
For three months of fighting in the city, while the few fighters of General Chuikov tied up a powerful enemy grouping, the Red Army managed to accumulate huge forces in the rear. Strategic reserve armies were secretly transferred from Moscow, aviation was concentrated, tank corps were armed, new infantry divisions were prepared and trained. Time was needed to prepare the offensive, and the defenders of Stalingrad provided it.
The operation was called “Uranus”, and the General Staff began to develop it back in September. The strategy was determined by Georgy Zhukov and Alexander Vasilevsky, the tactics were determined by the commanders of the three fronts participating in it: Konstantin Rokossovsky, Nikolai Vatutin and Andrey Eremenko.
The Soviet troops attacked not the main forces of Paulus, who were at the tip of the wedge, but those units that covered their rear, and from two sides towards each other. Under attack were mainly the armies of Hitler’s allies – Romanians, Hungarians and Italians. They were unable to provide real resistance to the Soviet tank wedges and were defeated.
Already on November 23, in the area of the city of Kalach-on-Don, the troops of the South-Western (commander General Vatutin) and Don (commander General Rokossovsky) fronts met, thereby closing the encirclement ring of the enemy’s Stalingrad group. But this was only the beginning – now it was still necessary to hold positions, not to let the enemy open the trap.
Moreover, it was necessary to defend both the outer and inner perimeters. For this, huge forces were needed, and now the Soviet command had them.
To unblock the encircled troops, the Germans had to withdraw troops from the Caucasus direction and transfer them to Stalingrad. From the approaching units and the reserve, the Don Army Group was created, the command of which was entrusted to the “conqueror of Sevastopol” General Erich von Manstein.
Formally, this grouping also included the encircled 6th Army of Paulus, which was necessary to coordinate actions. The main blow was supposed to be delivered from the outside, the encircled had to make their way towards. However, the plans of the enemy were not destined to come true – the Soviet army already had the initiative and had a significant advantage.
The troops of Vatutin and Philip Golikov (Voronezh Front) defending the outer contour in December not only stopped Manstein’s divisions, but quickly went on the offensive and pushed them back a hundred to two hundred kilometers. At the same time, the tankers of the 24th Corps of General Vasily Badanov, as a result of a 250-kilometer raid in the deep rear, managed to completely destroy the main enemy airfields, which were used to supply the encircled troops.
According to the stories of veterans, the tankers simply crushed the enemy planes in order to save ammunition, and then they were able to leave, refueling the vehicles with a mixture of aviation kerosene and engine oil prepared on the spot.
Payback has come. Now the Germans recognized all the delights of the environment. When they had eaten the last supplies of food and horses, famine set in. The superiority in heavy weapons was leveled by the lack of shells, and the tanks stood up when they ran out of fuel. The “sky bridge” promised by Hitler did not work – now Soviet aviation had air superiority, and a strong anti-aircraft barrier was deployed around the besieged group.
In January, Hitler sent a telegram to Paulus informing him that he had been promoted to the rank of field marshal. And below, the Fuhrer reminded that never before in history had a German field marshal been taken prisoner.
In fact, it was a proposal to commit suicide. But he did not do this: on January 31, Friedrich Paulus, at the head of his headquarters, surrendered.
Scattered and decapitated German units fought for several more days, until February 2. The longest resisted were “hi-vi” (from the German Hilfswilliger – “who wants to help”), as the Germans called the Soviet people who had gone over to their side. There were several tens of thousands of them near Stalingrad, and it was pointless to expect mercy for them.
The Germans and allies lost up to 1.5 million people and an unthinkable amount of equipment near Stalingrad. The losses of the Soviet troops for the Battle of Stalingrad itself (from July to February) are less, but if you add to this the dead in May-June 1942, you get much more.
On the other hand, starting from August-September, the ratio of losses changes sharply in our direction, and this is extremely important. The Soviet army was reorganized, one might say, learned to fight in the new conditions. Talented commanders and officers, brought up by practice, advanced to leading positions, the old clichés that had existed since the Civil War were finally overcome.
It is no coincidence that in 1942-1943 a structural reform of the army will be carried out, commanders will be replaced by officers, new ranks will appear, and so on.
Stalingrad was the last strategic operation carried out by the Wehrmacht. Prior to this, the Germans acted from a position of strength and decided what and how to do it – the Soviet command had only to react and fight back. With the defeat of the enemy in the south near Stalingrad and the breaking of the blockade of Leningrad in the north, the situation turned around.
The Germans lost the initiative, now they had to respond to the actions of the Soviet army. There were still many difficult battles ahead, but the critical point had been passed. No one doubted victory anymore.
There were many disputes whether it was worth restoring Stalingrad – a city in which not a single whole house remained, stuffed with explosives, and even littered with corpses. It was not economically profitable, but they decided that it was necessary to restore it.
Probably, only here the mystical meaning of the name affected – the city named after the leader. And immediately after the restoration, he became a symbol of victory.
The easternmost point of the war, the place from which our army pushed off, starting its journey to the west. And the hero of defense, Marshal Chuikov, already in the 1980s, shortly before his death, asked to be buried on Mamaev Kurgan among the soldiers who died in the battles for Stalingrad.
His soul remained there, among his comrades. In a city that they never gave up to the enemy.
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