Battle of Stalingrad:
Turning Point of World War II
With a force like the 6th army, I could storm the heavens” Adolf
Hitler As the surprise Soviet counter-offensive of the winter of 1941
petered out in the freezing snows of the Russian wilderness the minds of
the German war planners began to turn to the inevitable summer campaign
ahead, their successive offensive against a bloodied but defiant enemy.
Six months before on the 22nd of June 1941 the awesome German war
machine, seemingly unstoppable had launched itself at Russia, the
largest country in the world, with a sudden and devastating ferocity.
For this unparalleled attack the Germans had divided their four
million strong striking force into three large army groups. Army Group
North was to dash up to Leningrad, while bringing the Baltic area under
The task of the exceptionally strong Army Group Centre was to thrust
into the Russia heartland with Moscow as the desired long stop. The
Donnets River was the ambitious summer target for the Army Group South,
with Ukraine and Crimea as the rich prizes.
Only from an army of the calibre of the German Wehrmacht could a task
of such ambitious scale be demanded. No army in history had to conquer a
land as vast and an enemy as formidable in just one furious campaign. To
even contemplate such an undertaking the attacker had to possess
outstanding soldiery combined with a capacity for extraordinary economic
efficiency. Germany was obviously blessed with both.
The 6th Army in World War II
The war opened dazzlingly for the Teutonic warriors. Punching huge
gaps in the bewildered enemy defense lines the formidable Panzer
divisions of the Germans streaked across the Russian plains leaving the
mopping up to the slower infantry divisions. These highly trained men of
the infantry, while fighting, regularly marched 30 miles a day
determined to keep cohesion with their comrades in the armoured units
relentlessly moving eastward.
But the country, that Germany had now locked horns with was immense,
and the enemy exceedingly tough. It is testimony to the superlative
quality of German arms that they, hopelessly over-stretched after six
months of continuous fighting, almost achieved victory.
In the north they surrounded Leningrad and imposed a crippling siege
on the city. In the center, German reconnaissance units stomped through
knee high snow to the outskirts of Moscow. In the south most of Ukraine
But the Russian bear though dreadfully mauled was refusing to lie
In this huge gamble the Germans had taken, even a near victory
amounted to a long term defeat. Although they were now deep in Russia,
given the size of the country and its seemingly endless human resources,
the enemy was still in a position to continue resisting strongly. The
failure of the Wehrmacht to achieve essential and total victory in 1941
now necessitated a renewed offensive, which had to bring the enemy to
heel once and for all.
But after the dreadful winter battles of 1941, when Russians launched
quite an effective counter punch, the Germans were not in a position to
renew the attack on all three fronts. After much consideration they
picked on the economically vital Southern Front, hoping their superior
military could administer such a crippling blow to the Russians that
they would be compelled to surrender. The Army Groups North and Centre
were to remain on a defensive posture with a few local offensives to
keep the Russian defenders pinned down.
For the gigantic attack of 1942 the Army Group South was reorganized
with Field Marshall Von Bock in overall charge. Under his command were
several armies including the 2nd army, 17th army, the 6th army, the 1st
Panzer army and the 4th Panzer army.
Each of these armies was capable of delivering a crippling blow to
the enemy while the 6th was particularly strong with 11 divisions and an
entire Panzer Corps in its establishment. Operation Blue as the plan was
named, though somewhat vague on its final objectives, envisaged among
other things, reaching the Volga, bringing the large city of Stalingrad
under control and gaining the Eastern Caucasus during the campaign.
Again it was hoped that by menacing this vital area they could compel
the Soviets to commit its precious reserves, presenting the Germans thus
with an opportunity to force the issue.
The Germans had no doubts about the superiority of their fighting
men. Repeatedly, they had observed the wooden orthodoxy and the clumsy
battle tactics of the Russian commanders. In contrast the Germans were
trained and encouraged to fight resourcefully.
When necessary their commanders did not hesitate to adopt bold
initiatives and unconventional methods. Rather than attempting to
overwhelm the enemy with superior numbers or often wasteful firepower,
the Wehrmacht embraced the idea of effectively paralysing their foe with
On 28th of June 1942 on an overcast day, Von Bock opened his
offensive with predictable ferocity, within days splitting the Russian
front in to rapidly disintegrating fragments.
Once again the vaunted armoured divisions of the Germans advanced
East across the massive steppe seeking an opportunity to mortally wound
the enemy. Not only were they assured of their military supremacy, the
Germans were also convinced of their racial superiority over an enemy
their internal military magazines routinely described in disparaging
terms such as-” degenerate looking Orientals, begging whining Asians, a
mixture of low and the lowest humanity, truly subhuman”.
On the 22nd of August 1942 elements of the German 6th Army, now under
command of General Von Paulus, reached the Volga, in the borders of the
Asian continent, a remarkable advance since June of 1941. Stalingrad,
the city carrying the name of the Soviet dictator was tantalizingly
On the 23rd of August with predictable efficiency the German Air
Force began carpet-bombing the ill-fated city.
The resulting fires turned Stalingrad in to a burning inferno of
collapsed buildings, rubble and thick smoke. No human force could resist
the German firepower in those conditions. Hitler who had baulked at the
idea of committing his troops to city fighting in Moscow and Leningrad
the previous year, now decided that he must have Stalingrad.
Perhaps less sanguinely, but certainly with grim determination,
Stalin had also decided that Russia would not retreat any further.
So began the epic struggle between these two implacable enemies for a
burnt out patch of the earth, which finally became the turning point of
the Second World War.
For the valiant Russian defenders there was little choice. They faced
the fury of the German guns well aware that retreat only meant drowning
in the freezing waters of the Volga. Besides, Stalin who knew how to
impose his will had placed Secret Service Police detachments in the rear
with strict orders to summarily execute any Russian soldier disobeying
the order to hold their ground. For the Germans, the battle for
Stalingrad turned their world upside down.
Their armoured divisions trained to capture something like 50 miles a
day, were now advancing at snail pace, attempting to subdue burning city
squares against an enemy who rarely showed himself.
One single building would change hands several times in a day, each
battle only adding to the corpses lying on the floor.
In such close quarter fighting German planes and tanks were often
unable to join effectively through the fear of hitting their own. A
Lieutenant with the German 24th Panzer division described the
battlefield thus “Stalingrad is no longer a city.
By day it is an enormous cloud of burning, blinding smoke; it is a
vast furnace lit by the reflection of the flames.
And when the nights arrive, one of those scorching, howling, bleeding
nights, the dogs plunge in to the Volga and swim desperately to gain the
Nights of terror
The nights of Stalingrad are a terror for them. Animals flee this
hell; the hardest stones cannot bear it for any long; only men endure.”
While the fearsome battle was raging in this man made hell-hole of a
burning city hundreds of powerful German divisions were holding their
impossibly long front line from the Baltic Sea to the Caucasus
Mountains, many almost on an R & R mode.
Von Paulus himself could only commit eight of the divisions of the
6th Army to the crucial battle in the city while assigning eleven
divisions under his command to guard the large area under the Army’s
administration and his almost 200 mile long exposed flanks.
Paying a price
As the battle raged on in to the Russian winter many a General warned
of the dangers inherent in a prestige battle, where the German army was
paying a price totally out of proportion to the city’s fast diminishing
strategic importance. But the majority of the high command including
Hitler, who held the Russians in contempt, could not conceive of a
large-scale counteroffensive by them. The Wehrmacht, which had
traditionally prided itself on its cold rationality, was now acting
increasingly on hateful prejudices, arrogance and unwarranted optimism.
So General Von Paulus, the harried commander of the 6th Army,
considered a competent staff officer, if slow-witted and unimaginative
in the field, continued with tactics designed to grind down the enemy
inch by inch, an approach which was essentially counter-productive to
the numerically weaker but technically superior Germans.
The German battle order in the Stalingrad area now presented Marshall
Zhukov the Russian commander, legendary for his coolness under pressure,
with a situation where he could turn tables on the enemy. The German 6th
Army intent on gaining Stalingrad at any cost was fully absorbed in city
Its long and difficult flanks guarded mainly by satellite divisions
from Rumania and Hungary with a sprinkling of German units, were
vulnerable. These satellite armies were far inferior to the Germans in
equipment as well as in fighting qualities. The nearest German
formations of any size were far away in the Caucasus absorbed in heavy
fighting in those areas.
Pay with blood
Realising the opportunity the situation presented, Zhukov decided to
keep the battle of Stalingrad going even at a heavy price while secretly
accumulating huge forces at the extremities of the German flanks. It was
a hard decision.
The men he ferried across the Volga to battle the Germans in the
inferno of Stalingrad had extremely low chances of returning alive. But
in order to keep the Germans firmly focused on the city, Zhukov was
willing to pay with blood for time. So for almost four months the two
armies continued to wage a ferocious battle for the few remaining square
miles of the city of Stalingrad.
Then in the early hours of the 19th of November 1942, when the
freezing Russian winter was well advanced, Zhukov struck. The Russians,
in two huge pincer attacks, pierced the flanks of the 6th Army moving
rapidly towards the town of kalach their intended meeting point.
On their advance they met only feeble resistance from the Rumanians
and the Hungarians, the allied troops to whom the Germans had mainly
entrusted the task of guarding the rear of the 6th Army.
On 22nd of November when the two pincer arms of the Russians met at
Kalach they had entrapped the great 6th Army of the Germans. In the
bleak icy Russian Steppe, covered by a numbing winter mist, the turning
point of the Second World War had been reached.
Although the Germans were to fight on doggedly for another two and
half years, they had lost the initiative.
Despite their valiant attempts six months later in the titanic battle
of Kursk to wrestle back the initiative, from Stalingrad on the Germans
were largely an Army in defense.