From July 17, 1942 to February 2, 1943 the bloodiest and most influential battle of World War II was fought in and around the Soviet city of Stalingrad. The battle involved the belligerent Nazi Germany Sixth Army led by General Paulus and overseen by Adolf Hitler. It also involved the Soviet Red Army led by Generals Georgy Zhukov and Aleksandr Vasilevskiy and overseen by Joseph Stalin. The battle waged on until the soviet army began a counter-offensive and surrounded the German Sixth Army within Stalingrad and forced them to surrender. This marked a triumphant turning point for the allied forces in the war and forced Nazi Germany into a defensive war against the allies on all fronts later on. However, with triumph comes tragedy. The casualties in this battle alone cemented it as the bloodiest conflict in history. Besides the battle resulting in millions of casualties and signaling the end of the most destructive war in human history, the battle spurred Soviet Russia to become a world superpower and the Cold War between Russia and the United States can be traced back to events transpiring in this battle.
Background and Context
August 23rd, 1939, mere weeks before World War II officially broke out in Europe, Adolf Hitler Nazi Germany signed the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact with Joseph Stalin and Soviet Russia. This pact, written by German Joachim von Ribbentrop and Soviet Vyacheslav Molotov, detailed how the two nations would not take military action against one another for ten years and included details on how the two would split up Eastern Europe amongst one another after the certain war in the future. “Russia would not interfere with the German Invasion of Poland. Stalin’s prize for remaining neutral: Eastern Poland.”(add clip of this)Meanwhile, France and Great Britain, realizing the dangerous power this alliance had over the continent, penned a pledge to protect Poland from outside militant entities. As a result of these pacts and treaties World War II officially began September 1, 1939, when Nazi Germany initiated their blitzkrieg into Eastern Poland.
The years prior to the breaking of the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact were tumultuous. “In a wild gamble that France and Great Britain would not meet their treaty obligations to Poland, and knowing he had nothing to fear from the Soviet Army, Hitler ordered his troops to strike east into Poland.” writes History.com. As Europe fell into bloodshed and conflict and Hitler began his invasion of Poland followed by France, Soviet Russia began to build their military power. These assaults on Germany’s neighbors resulted in Poland being split between Soviet Russia, receiving the Eastern side, and Nazi Germans, receiving the western side. As the battle waged on, Nazi Germany’s expenses resource-wise had grown to unsustainable amounts. This promoted them to rethink their ten-year treaty with their then-ally Soviet Russia.
Events Immediately Before the War
Despite the early political clout this pact had, it did not stand the test of time. As the war waged on, so did Adolf Hitler’s lust for dominion. Hitler had to necesítate his need for resources with oil from the Russian Caucasus region. On June 22, 1941 Operation Barbarossa was underway and the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact was quickly forgotten. “Having torn up yet another ‘scrap of paper’ and shown once again how worthless his word, Hitler has plunged Nazi Germany into another adventure—The colossal and incalculable adventure of an assault on Soviet Russia.” headlines the Western Daily Press. Quickly, Nazi Germany, alongside Romania, Italy, Hungary, and Croatia, began their offensive against the Soviet Union. In its opening weeks, the nearly three million German forces contained within 150 divisions lined up and delved deeply into Soviet territory. Victories at key areas like Smolensk and Minsk heightened Nazi morale and weakened the Soviets. Despite the victories, the Germans suffered important losses at Moscow in the winter of ‘41-‘42. As summer rolled back around for the Germans during Operation Barbarossa, Hitler set his sights upon the industrial capital and namesake of Joseph Stalin: Stalingrad.
As the German Operation Barbarossa continued throughout the Russian Steppes and Caucuses, the themes of triumph and tragedy were ever-more-present. The quiet, yet influential triumph of the Soviet Army at Moscow was an echo of what was to come on the Volga River at Stalingrad. However, not only was the victory echoed, the loss of life was as well. By this point in the war, 600,000 Soviet Soldiers were already captured by the Nazi Army and casualties surmounted 1,000,000 casualties from both the offensive and defensive infantries.
Because Operation Barbarossa was considered a failure, Adolf Hitler decided that a new plan of attack needed to be formed. Hitler named this plan Operation Blue. Much to the dismay of his war generals, who wanted the target of Operation Blue to once again be Moscow, Hitler decided to focus on the oil fields in the Caucasus region. He did this for two very important reasons. The first was that without oil, the Soviet army would eventually collapse. The second was that with access to Soviet oil, it would only be a matter of time before Germany conquered Soviet Russia.
Heart of the Story
July 17, 1942, Germany and Adolf Hitler’s Sixth Army, led by General Paulus, reaches the gates of Stalingrad perched upon the Volga River. After trekking through the muddy trails and roads throughout the Russian Steppes and Caucuses, German forces unknowingly begin the bloodiest and most influential siege in modern history. On the other side, a cold Joseph Stalin commands his army, aided by his General, Georgy Zhukov, and prepares his orders to keep his namesake alive. By the start of the battle Soviet forces were 187,000 strong with over 2,000 pieces of artillery, however, these number increased exponentially as the battle waged on. Across the Volga stood 270,000 Nazi infantryman armed with 3,000 pieces of artillery, 500 tanks, and 600 aircraft. Similar to the Soviets, these numbers only grew. All signs and details observed before the battle pointed towards this being one of the most important battles of World War II.
Both sides were placed in a do-or-die situation. Nazi Germany placed an extreme amount of resources on this battle, losing seemed almost impossible, however, it would surely spell doom for them if they began to fight a defensive war on the western front. For the Soviets, they were backed into a corner, they were fighting for their lives and for their country as a whole. A loss at Stalingrad would mean the end of Soviet Union.
Not only was this battle life or death for the soldiers, it was also for the civilians of Stalingrad itself. Stalin’s tactics were a large reason why the civilian death toll was so high in this battle.Stalin shipped most of the important food supplies such as grain and cattle away from Stalingrad, leaving the citizens with little to eat. In the first 48 hours of the battle almost 100 tons of bombs were dropped by the Luftwaffe during the Blitzkrieg. Dozens of airstrikes followed suit and tens of thousands of the citizens lost their lives and the once populous and industrious city became rubble and a warzone. Stalin’s policies had begun to take their first lives. The Nazi’s use of the tactic “blitzkrieg” was essential to all their victories during most of the war, allowing them to attack the enemy quickly and cause maximum damage to them, which led to their swift defeat. This tactic worked extremely well for fast paced operations but in a battle of attrition, there is no way to maneuver fast enough to get the advantage of encircling and capturing the enemy. This caused the major tactic to fail due to the Germans being stopped and bogged down within the city, which caused them to lose immense amounts of men and resources. This was not something the Germans were used to and it caused them to be off balance during the battle, not having the swift upperhand. This major fluke for the Germans was first seen at the battle of Moscow. Another factor that led to the failure of the operation was that the Germans were not prepared for winter. At first they planned an earlier summer campaign but it was later postponed to later that summer. With this delay, they counted on the blitzkrieg being essential in a quick victory over the Soviets. This was hampered by the ferocious downpours during the summer that caused many vital paths to become a muddy bog and the brutal winter that froze an essential amount of machinery including tanks and transport vehicles. Another drawback was the number of infantrymen that had to travel by foot, most of the way across the Soviet Union.
Besides the loss of life, thousands upon thousands of soldiers and citizens alike were captured by German infantry and forced into brutal prisoner of war camps. In an interview conducted by a student at American University. with a Stalingrad Soldier and POW Vadim Medish observed “Germans didn’t not count on it, rather they counted on you dropping dread. They had so many prisoners of war much in excess of what they planned”
After months of fighting, the Nazi Luftwaffe had air superiority and the Soviets death toll continued to rise. Stalin ordered every man, woman, and child able to wield a weapon or dig trenches. Stalin then ordered the infamous “Order 227.” which forbade the retreat of any soldier. The outlined punishments included a military trial and subsequent execution. Stalin’s situation did not get any better when other allied powers, most notably the United States, refused to provide reinforcements in an attempt to keep Soviet power in check.
As the Soviet troops dwindled to the tens of thousands and left with dismal amount of tanks, Joseph Stalin knew he had to rely on his Generals Georgy Zhukov and Aleksandr Vasilevskiy. Luckily, both Zhukov and Vasilevskiy formulated Operation Uranus. The operation relied on forces coming in from the Northern Steppes and south of the city itself. Finally, after weeks of planning, on November 19, 1942, the Red Army, consisting of 18 different infantry divisions, took its first offensive strike against the 6th German Army and overtook the Romanian divisions protecting the North. Such an offensive caught an ill-equipped Wehrmacht of guard and the harsh winter conditions disabled all Nazi air support from the Luftwaffe. The next day another offensive from the south was taken and the two divisions major divisions encircled the entirety of the 265,000 Axis troops by the 23rd.
Hitler, in an attempt to keep General Friedrich Paulus from surrendering, promoted him to field marshall to persuade him to take his own life and show honor to Nazi Germany. However, Friedrich Paulus had decided to put the lives of his soldiers ahead of the ego of Hitler and surrendered. The total number of soldiers who surrendered totalled 105,000 and 60,000 died during Operation Uranus.
The battle resulted in a triumphant Soviet victory against the most powerful military on Earth at the time when the odds were stacked against them. This battle forced Nazi Germany to begin a defensive war against a determined and invigorated Red Army marching straight towards Berlin, subsequently ending the war in Europe. However, the tragic loss of life during this battle alone almost overshadowed the world-changing triumph occuring at the same time. The casualties soared to almost 2,000,000 total wounded and killed. 1.2 million killed on the side of the Soviet and 800,000 killed on the side of Nazi Germany.
Immediate Effects after Main Tragedy/Triumph
The battle of stalingrad became the key turning point of the war for the allies. With the German’s loss of their entire 6th army, the resources lost in the battle, and the amount of men captured or killed in action, it halted the Nazis progression into Russia. With this failure, The Nazis were not able to create another huge offensive. They were then forced to retreat out of Russia and this would start the march to Berlin. This defeat crippled the Nazi war effort and caused them to begin their two front defensive war after the invasion of D-Day began.
With the huge success for the Soviets at Stalingrad, it gave them national pride and support in their leader. This would immensely help them in their war efforts against the Nazis and would help them continue the push into the heartland of Nazi Germany. But tensions were also created with the Allies themselves due to the fact of the United States and Britain not send aid to the Soviets to help in the fight.
The victory did not come without a price. With the enormous loss of life during the battle, The Nazis continued with their acts of attrition by torching and destroying villages that they encountered during their retreat. These atrocities would inspire many similar acts by their soviet counterparts on their way to Berlin.
Significance in History (“So what?”)
Although the Battle of Stalingrad was a major victory for the allied powers, and possibly the most pivotal battle of world war 2, it was still a crushing blow to Soviet Russia. While the city of Stalingrad was under siege, civilians were beaten, tortured, and starved by German troops. A city that was once populated by more than one million people had dwindled down to just a meager thirty five thousand. There were so many deaths that occurred, that every year people go out in search of soldier remains. According to a New York Times article, the bodies of nearly 800 soldiers were discovered in 2017 alone.
Despite massive civilian and soldier casualties, Soviet Russia still emerged from World War 2 a world superpower. Part of that was due to the fact that most of the rest of Europe had been conquered by the German army. While every other major European country was defeated by Germany, Soviet Russia was alone in their success over the nazis.
With the major allies of World War 2 not providing aid to the Soviets during the battle, it created a lot of resentment towards the United States. This would cause tension between the two superpowers and would lead to the Cold War. During the Cold War, they would compete in having global domination through countries in politics and military might. With the examples of the Vietnam war and Afghanistan being the most prominent areas of influence during the conflict. All of this was possible by the Soviet Union coming out with the critical victory at the battle of stalingrad. With this, they became a military superpower and stretched their influence and economic policies across the world.
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